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.


  1. SnowLeopard says:

    I’ve always associated chickenshit with spinelessness — but perhaps I’m off the mark because of my sheltered upbringing. In any event, I agree there’s work to be done here. Why is bullshit associated with insincerity or disingenuousness, going apeshit with fury, batshit (as in batshit crazy) with insanity, and dogshit with abject but self-aware worthlessness? It’s a field of inquiry I think of as ‘colloqiual zooscatology’.

  2. There is also the Downundrian term ratshit, which is oddly enough both a near-synonym and a near-homonym for “wretched”.
    However, dogshit does not seem to me to belong here. People and things are routinely compared to dogshit, and even described metaphorically as being dogshit, but the word dogshit has not acquired a secondary sense as far as I can see. Similarly, the phrase lower than whale shit does not contain a term of the above type: whale shit (which is notionally supposed to occupy the sea floor) is here being used literally.
    And what is the difference between bullshit and horseshit, while we are at it?

  3. SnowLeopard: No, you’re just conservative in your usage. The OED defines it as “a coward; also used as a general term of abuse.”
    John Cowan: I agree that dogshit seems not to belong in the group, and I too would like to see a good scholarly analysis of bullshit and horseshit.

  4. I almost wrote this one off at the title, but was surprised to read there is a pretty dang reasonable history on this expletive. Nothing chickenshit about this post at all 😉

  5. mollymooly says:

    In British English, I’ve never understood chickenshit as anything other than a stronger synonym of chicken (=coward). In bullshit, apeshit, batshit and chickenshit the -shit seems to me in a class of meaningless euphonious slang endings like –o or –y, with the added bonus of being a bit taboo. A partial analogue in British English of the more specific American sense of “chickenshit” is “jobsworth”: a minor official who enforces an illogical rule because “it more than my job’s worth” to make an exception.

  6. On bullshit vs. horseshit: Not scholarly, perhaps, but in a book by Art Kleps called “Millbrook – The true story of the early years of the psychedelic revolution” (1977), he quotes himself in a conversation with Timothy Leary as having written the following:
    “Our victory is over horseshit rather than bullshit. Bullshit is a rare and valuable commodity. The great masters have all been superb bullshitters. Horseshit, on the other hand, in the common parlance, refers to downright crap. The free, playful entertaining flight of ideas is bullshit; and more often than not will be found afterwards to accord perfectly with universal truth. Horseshit is contrived; derivative, superstitious, ignorant. We might take Gurdjieff as an example of a master bullshitter and Meher Baba as an example of a master horseshitter.”
    Which seems about right to me. Bullshit requires some art; horseshit is just off-the cuff nonsense.

  7. Also, from with Wikipedia article on “bullshit” (not scholarly by definition): (all quoted)
    The word “horseshit” is often used in vulgar slang as a synonym for “bullshit” to refer to nonsense. The usage of “horseshit” (a less common term) differs slightly from “bullshit”. People may refer to their own statements and presentations as “bullshit”, as in the traditional folk saying, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”. “Horseshit” is more often used as a reactive exclamation or profoundly distrustful assessment.
    “Bullshit” implies dubious credibility with an understood lack of true malevolence, whereas “horseshit” suggests uncompromised ignorance or deception. “Horseshit” carries with it a certain connotation of indignation; stating that something is a “load of horseshit” usually implies that the speaker feels somehow cheated or wronged by the current situation, whereas calling something “bullshit” can imply anything from indignation to a joking and good-natured intent.
    Furthermore, Bullshit can also be used to express surprise, shock and/or humour at a truthful tale – often because the end result of the story or incident is of such fortune that if you didn’t know any better you’d instantly assume the tale to be fictional. The statement of “Bullshit!” in this context is more likely followed up by a question (such as “Are you serious?”), or combined in a question (eg. “No way! Are you bullshitting me?”), which serves the purpose of asking the person telling the story to reconfirm the truthfulness of the tale.

  8. My wife’s grandfather, a Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy, often used the term ‘pissants’ to describe those who were responsible for ‘chickenshit’.

  9. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but when I read “a curse word associated with chickens,” my first thought was “cocksucker.”

  10. Horseshit is pernicious bullshit.
    Chickenshit is cowardly and petty shit.
    seems simple enough.

  11. I actually thought that “chickenshit” was to tame to euphemize any more, so I started trying to think of worse thinks he could have said. “Chickenfucker” was the only snappy one I could come up with.

  12. To me chickenshit is petty and small-time. Cowardice might be included, but it’s not dominant.

  13. Two separate uses.
    He was too chickenshit to come speak to me about it in person. (cowardly)
    So he brought me up on some chickenshit charges about keeping my uniform and quarters clean. (petty)

  14. Yeah, Al’s got it. Those examples are, well, exemplary.

  15. Rat-, horse-, bull-, chicken-, & whale-shit. I’ve never paid much thought to the subject, but it seems that the “animal+shit” compound basically takes some traits of the animal and applies them to a specific kind of unpleasant situation or person. e.g.
    Horses = unpredictable, proud and sometimes nasty (hooves and teeth)
    Bulls = big, muscular, not too bright hence the “baffle with bullshit”
    Chickens = small, petty, … think of a pecking order.
    Rats = small….(I can’t say this is a common one for me.)
    Whales =
    Elephants = really big bulls
    I’m a little surprised that the terms “pigshit” and “duckshit” haven’t arisen yet.
    Pigs = smelly, dirty, particularly unpleasant
    Ducks = seem to leave their shit (wet and sloppy) on nice picnic grounds, right where you wish to lay your rug.
    However, whilst we discuss all these fine points of x-shit, I’ve found that any of these terms are used without too much thought at the whim of the user. The overriding factor is that something is basically “shit”. Whatever defecator happens to be in mind can freely be used, and the intent is still expressed contextually identically.
    Do Pommies ever use “pigeonshit”? It just seems like it could work, though I’ve never heard it.

  16. Noetica says:

    A lover of mine from many years ago was wont to use the term frogshit, in the same diminutive, small-time sense that chickenshit bears. I like that variant, and I think there should be more of that kind in use. Myself, I occasionally utter the words not worth a knob of goatshit in a similar way. A Hungarian of my acquaintance likes to say not worth a hatful of shit, which is surreally evocative, and therefore to be prized.
    Shit in general has always been multiply equivocal. Freud makes something valuable and “golden-egg-like” of it, of course. And who could forget certain literary nuggets, like those in Ulysses? I mean here, for example, in the Eumaeus episode:

    The horse, having reached the end of his tether, so to speak, halted, and, rearing high a proud feathering tail, added his quota by letting fall on the floor, which the brush would soon brush up and polish, three smoking globes of turds. Slowly, three times, one after another, from a full crupper, he mired. And humanely his driver waited till he (or she) had ended, patient in his scythed car.

    But all things considered, I think we overdo the notion, and the words. I am uncomfortable with people smearing their discourse with them, and employ such locutions myself only for rare and (as I hope) witty effect. In particular, I find the French word merde one of the ugliest in the language, as crepuscular is one of the ugliest in our own.

  17. A technical use of the word “dogshit” is found in law, and more precisely among the plaintiff’s bar. A plaintiff’s case which, after commenced, is discovered to be worthless is often called “dogshit.” Interestingly, the term is not employed to describe meritless cases which are not filed, only cases which are filed, and then revealed to be, well, dogshit.

  18. This got me thinking – a rare event, that. What about “dipshit?” True, it’s not zoologically based, but it certainly has taken on a meaning of its own.

  19. Addendum to what I said above –
    I think you can also call someone “a chickenshit” full stop, i.e. noun rather than adjective. Probably in both the sense of a coward and the sense of a petty, passive aggressive etc type.
    I do have the sense that “chickenshit” is less aptly applied to a woman. It seems to imply a lack of specifically “manly” virtues. (Not agreeing with the implicit attitudes about gender roles here, just noting the sense the word has for me)
    And Mahlon: yes! “Dipshit” is one of my favorite words in English. Great dismissive sound; somehow gentle while at the same time completely undercutting the person it’s applied to.

  20. Alan Gunn says:

    In World War II, the German for “chickenshit” (in the military sense of petty) was “08/15,” which became the title of a novel by Hans Helmut Kirst. The English word wouldn’t have worked well as a title, so the translation was called “The Revolt of Gunner Asch.”
    The reason “08/15” meant “chickenshit” was that making an enlisted man repeatedly disassemble and reassemble the model 08/15 machine gun (so-called because it was introduced in 1908 and modified in 1915) was considered the model of petty military tyranny.

  21. Interesting! And in case anybody’s wondering, the German title is pronounced “Null-acht fünfzehn.”

  22. I had a couple of profs at the University of Chicago (2001-2005), who, when talking about their service in Vietnam, remembered with unfond hissing and growling the “chickenshit colonels” who would fly over their heads (as they crawled in the mud under fire) in helicopters and order them around through a megaphone.

  23. Owlmirror says:

    Hm. Another take on bullshit, by Professor Frankfurt of Princeton:

    Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

    And there’s also Penn and Teller’s TV show Bullshit!
    As noted, both usages do seem to imply that bullshit lacks a certain malice or perniciousness that perhaps is covered by “horseshit”. Although it seems likely that bullshit can and does shade into horseshit, depending on context.

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