Mark Liberman has a typically incisive Language Log post about that satisfying expletive chickenshit, sparked off by this quote from a Washington Post story: “McCain… used a curse word associated with chickens and accused Cornyn of raising the issue just to torpedo a deal.” (Mark says “Amazingly, Andrew Sullivan was… baffled by this bit of bowdlerization,” but I confess when I read the story earlier I myself was baffled. I associate chickenshit with bosses, not chickens, and wondered vaguely if McCain had squawked in outrage.) After a thorough lexicographical examination, he says “It seems to me that there is some philosophical work to be done here, along the lines of Harry Frankfurt’s pathbreaking exegesis of bullshit,” and I couldn’t agree more. I disagree, however, with Mark’s suggestion that “the essence of chickenshit — or at least a critical factor in chickenshit — is misrepresentation of motives”; that seems to me an ancillary, not a defining, factor. In an update he quotes an excellent analysis by Paul Fussell, whose book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War contains an entire chapter “Chickenshit, An Anatomy”:
Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige… insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called — instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit — because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.
Gallus gallus may vanish from the face of the earth, but chickenshit will always be with us.