Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Vocabuteria: bullshit

[An ongoing feature designed to improve your vocabulary and mine.]


Yes, this is a common word, perhaps all too common in the opinion of people who disapprove of expletives. I bring it up for three reasons: 1) to proclaim that I appreciate a well-chosen expletive (and know I’m not alone), and 2) because as growing adults, hoping to become our better selves at this opportune stage of life, one of our great tasks, I believe, is to see and clear up our own bullshit, and 3) because I checked on “bullshit” in Wikipedia and found the etymology worth sharing. (We know most of it, but not framed so academically.) We often use words without knowing much about them. And they sometimes come with a good story. “Bullshit” does (quoting Wikipedia):

• Bullshit (also bullcrap) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism BS.

• In British English, “bollocks” is a comparable expletive.

• It is mostly a slang profanity term meaning “nonsense,” especially as a rebuke in response to communication or actions viewed as deceptive, misleading, disingenuous, unfair, or false.

• A person who communicates nonsense on a given subject may be referred to as a “bullshit artist.”

• “Bull,” meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century, while the term “bullshit” has been used as early as 1915 in British and American slang, and came into popular usage only during World War II.

• The term “horseshit” is a near synonym. 

• An occasionally used South African English equivalent is “bull dust.”

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University wrote an infamous 1986 essay, “On Bullshit” (published as a monograph in 2005), drawing this important distinction between the truth-teller, the liar, and the bullshitter:

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.

And, says Wikipedia with clinical understatement, “Several political commentators have seen that Frankfurt's concept of bullshit provides insights into political campaigns.”

But back to you and me. 

We all have a strong propensity to believe our own bullshit. It’s a kind of emotional survival tool. But to see it, name it, and laugh at it, is a more powerful tool — a power tool on the path to being that person we’ve always wanted to be. The non-bullshitting one.

And just when we think we’ve cleaned out the stable, another load appears.

It certainly does for me, anyway.



Retirement and Gender: Sobering Notes From the Front Line