As with many expletives, it can be used as an interjection (or in many other parts of speech) and can carry a wide variety of meanings. Most commonly, it is used in connection with incorrect, misleading, or false language and statements. While the word is generally used in a deprecating sense, it may imply a measure of respect for language skills, or frivolity, among various other benign usages.
The earliest attestation mentioned by the Concise Oxford Dictionary is in fact T. S. Eliot, who between 1910 and 1916 wrote an early poem to which he gave the title The Triumph of Bullshit, written in the form of a ballade. The first stanza goes:
The word bullshit does not appear in the text of the poem, though in keeping with the ballade form, the refrain "For Christ's sake stick it up your ass" appears in each following verse and concludes the envoi. Eliot did not publish this poem during his lifetime.
As to earlier etymology the OED cites bull with the meaning "trivial, insincere, untruthful talk or writing, nonsense". It describes this usage as being of unknown origin, but notes the following: "OF boul, boule, bole fraud, deceit, trickery; mod. Icel bull ‘nonsense’; also ME bull BUL ‘falsehood’, and BULL verb, to befool, mock, cheat." Worthy of note is the South African English equivalent "bull dust".
Although as the above makes clear there is no confirmed etymological connection it might be noted that these older meanings are synonymous with the modern expression "Bull" otherwise generally considered (and intentionally used as) a contraction of "Bullshit".
Bullshit is often considered a vulgar word, and in the U.S. and New Zealand, it must be censored from over-the-air radio broadcasts.
In his essay on the subject William G. Perry called bull[shit] "relevancies, however relevant, without data" and gave a definition of the verb "to bull[shit]" as follows:
The "bullshitter" generally either knows the statements are likely false, exaggerated, and in other ways misleading or has no interest in their factual accuracy one way or the other. "Talking bullshit" is thus a lesser form of lying, and is likely to elicit a correspondingly weaker emotional response: whereas an obvious liar may be greeted with contempt, outrage, or anger, an exponent of bullshit tends to be dismissed with an indifferent sneer.
Words such as "baloney" or "poppycock" are less vulgar alternatives. There are also many Irish slang equivalents, including blarney, malarkey, balderdash, and tommyrot.)
In his essay On Bullshit (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The "bullshitter", on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress:
''It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Frankfurt connects this analysis of bullshit with Ludwig Wittgenstein's disdain of "non-sense" talk, and with the popular concept of a "bull session" in which speakers may try out unusual views without commitment. He fixes the blame for the prevalence of "bullshit" in modern society upon anti-realism and upon the growing frequency of situations in which people are expected to speak or have opinions without appropriate knowledge of the subject matter.
Gerald Cohen, in "Deeper into Bullshit", contrasted the kind of "bullshit" Frankfurt describes with a different sort: nonsense discourse presented as sense. Cohen points out that this sort of bullshit can be produced either accidentally or deliberately. While some writers do deliberately produce bullshit, a person can also aim at sense and produce nonsense by mistake; or a person deceived by a piece of bullshit can repeat it innocently, without intent to deceive others.
Cohen gives the example of Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries" as a piece of deliberate bullshit. Sokal's aim in creating it, however, was to point out that the "postmodernist" editors who accepted his paper for publication could not distinguish nonsense from sense, and thereby by implication that their field was "bullshit".
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