, or horseshit
) is a common English expletive
. It may be shortened to "bull" or the euphemism bs
. The term is common in American English
. In British English
is a comparable expletive, although bullshit
is now a commonly used expletive in British English as well.
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.
In popular philosophy, Harry Frankfurt among others described the word bullshit as related to but distinct from lying. Proponents of Analytical Marxism used the word as well.
"Bull", meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century (Concise Oxford Dictionary), whereas the term "bullshit" is popularly considered to have been first used in 1915, in American
slang, and to have come into popular usage only during World War II
. The word "bull" itself may have derived from the Old French boul
meaning "fraud, deceit" (Oxford English Dictionary). The term "horseshit" is a near synonym.
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:
- Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.
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.
Uses of "bullshit"
Assertions of fact
is commonly used to describe statements made by people more concerned with the response of the audience than in truth and accuracy, such as goal-oriented statements made in the field of politics or advertising.
Distinguished from lying
"Bullshit" does not necessarily have to be a complete fabrication; with only basic knowledge about a topic, bullshit is often used to make the audience believe that one knows far more about the topic by feigning total certainty or making probable predictions. It may also merely be "filler" or nonsense that, by virtue of its style or wording, gives the impression that it actually means something. (In critiques of propaganda
, this "technique" is known as the argumentum ex stercore tauri
, which literally means "appealing to the manure of bulls").
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.
As an act
Carrying out a deception
is the act of asserting bullshit as in, for example, an employment interview.
People are also said to "bullshit" friends or acquaintances should they spin an elaborate and possibly whimsical tall tale
, so as to make the listener appear foolish by dint of their gullibility in accepting the untruths as fact. Another informal and slightly archaic term for this is "jiving".
Sometimes called "shooting the shit"
or "shooting the bull"
, bullshit can also be the act of having a casual conversation of little value or about an unimportant subject.
As a skill
People may attribute their performance in an examination
to their ability to "bullshit". In this sense, "bullshitting" walks the line between extemporaneous speaking and lying outright.
Bullshit can also refer to excessively complex, unreasonable, burdensome, offensive, or otherwise unwanted instructions, demands, rules, accounts, explanations, or other verbiage. For example, a contractor wishing to bid on a government job may refer to the paperwork required to do so as "government bullshit."
The exclamation "bullshit!" can also be used to express surprise, shock, indignation and/or humour at another person's statement. It may be an accusation that the material is deliberately deceptive, or else a humorous invitation to confirm or elaborate a surprising claim. People may say "that's bullshit" when something bad or unexpected happens, as in "No way!" or "You're kidding".
is a less common synonym for "bullshit". "Horseshit" is more often used as a reactive exclamation or profoundly distrustful assessment. "Horseshit" carries a connotation of the speaker's indignation and tends to lack the benign implications of "bullshit"; stating that something is a "load of horseshit" usually implies that the speaker feels wronged or upset by the current situation, whereas calling something "bullshit" can imply anything from indignation to a joking and good-natured intent.
Words such as "baloney" or "poppycock" are less vulgar alternatives. There are also many Irish slang equivalents, including blarney, malarkey, balderdash, and tommyrot.)
"Bullshit" in philosophy
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".
"Bullshit" has a number of euphemisms
- bull shit (pronounced like two separate words, as done by Tourettes Guy
- bull butter (alluding to something that would be as absurd as a bull producing milk/butter)
- bull con
- bull feathers
- bullroar (especially when intimidation is involved)
- bullpucky or bullpuckey
- bovine scat (retaining the initials)
- bovine stercus
- horsepucky or horsepuckey
- horse hockey (referring to the hockey-like motion of shoveling manure from horse stalls into a low cart)
- poppycock (a transliteration of pappe kak, the Dutch phrase for "bird guano")
- Penny, Laura (2005). Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit. Random House. ISBN 1-4000-8103-3. — Halifax academic Laura Penny's study of the phenomenon of bullshit and its impact on modern society.
- Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12294-6. — Harry Frankfurt's detailed analysis of the concept of bullshit.
- Holt, Jim, Say Anything, one of his Critic At Large essays from The New Yorker, (August 22, 2005)
- Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (Harcourt, 1997) ISBN 0-151002-74-6
- Royston, Chris. My Life - No Bullshit, I Actually Do Get Blank Cheques (Royston Publishers 2007)
- Weingartner, C. (1975). Public doublespeak: every little movement has a meaning all of its own. College English, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Sep., 1975), pp. 54-61.