The Origin of the S-Word

Ship High in Transit
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You may have heard a story in which we are told, and with a straight face, that the word "sh*t" originated as the acronym of "Ship High in Transit" (or "Stow High in Transit"), a supposed nautical phrase. 

Here's one chain e-mail that describes a compelling, but false, story about the etymology of the S-Word: 

In the 1800's, cow pie's were collected on the prarie and boxed and loaded on steam ships to burn instead of wood. Wood was not only hard to find, but heavy to move around and store.
When the boxes of cow pie's were in the sun for days on board the ships, they would smell bad. So when the manure was boxed up, they stamped the outside of the box, S.H.I.T....which means Ship High In Transit.
When people came aboard the ship and said,"Oh what is that smell!" They were told it was sh*t.

Clever as all that may be, whoever came up with it doesn't know sh*t about "sh*t."

In fact, the word is much older than the 1800s, appearing in its earliest form about 1,000 years ago as the Old English verb scitan. That is confirmed by lexicographer Hugh Rawson in his bawdily edifying book, Wicked Words, where it is further noted that the expletive is distantly related to words like science, schedule and shield, all of which derive from the Indo-European root skei-, meaning "to cut" or "to split." You get the idea.

For most of its history "sh*t" was spelled "sh*te" (and sometimes still is), but the modern, four-letter spelling of the word can be found in texts dating as far back as the mid-1700s. It most certainly did not originate as an acronym invented by 19th-century sailors.

Apropos that false premise, Rawson observes that "sh*t" has long been the subject of naughty wordplay, very often based on made-up acronyms on the order of "Ship High in Transit." For example:

In the Army, officers who did not go to West Point have been known to disparage the military academy as the South Hudson Institute of Technology.... And if an angelic six-year-old asks, "Would you like to have some Sugar Honey Iced Tea?", the safest course is to pretend that you have suddenly gone stone deaf.

Lastly, all these stories are reminiscent of another popular specimen of folk etymology claiming that the f-word (another good old-fashioned, all-purpose, four-letter expletive) originated as the acronym of "Fornication Under Consent of the King" (or, in another version, "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge").

Suffice it to say, it's all C.R.A.P.

Sources and further reading

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