Lexical Difference Explained.

Another goodie from last year I’m just getting around to: Corinne Purtill analyzes The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck.

Let’s say the situation at work is not good. The project (or product, or re-org, or whatever) has launched, and the best you can say is that things aren’t going as planned. At all. It’s a disaster, though the best word for it is the one you drop over drinks with your team and when venting at home: it’s a clusterfuck. […] To appreciate what a clusterfuck is—and to understand how to avoid one—it is first helpful to clarify some of the things a clusterfuck is not:

A fuck-up. “A fuck-up is just something all of us do every day,” Sutton says. “I broke the egg I made for breakfast this morning. That was kind of a fuck-up.” Whereas clusterfucks are perfectly preventable, fuck-ups are an unavoidable feature of the human condition.

A SNAFU. While sometimes used as a synonym for minor malfunctions and hiccups, this slang military acronym—“Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”—actually refers to the functionally messy state that describes many otherwise healthy companies (and many of our personal lives). A SNAFU work environment is usually manageable; one that is FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair, another military legacy) probably isn’t. “When my students with little experience go to work at a famous company and it isn’t quite as they dreamed, I do ask them if it is FUBAR or SNAFU, and tell them SNAFU will describe most places they work,” Sutton said.

A shitshow. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary describes a shitshow as a “situation or state of affairs characterized by chaos, confusion, or incompetence.” A clusterfuck may come to possess all those characteristics, but is more properly identified by the decisions that produced it than its outcome.

You’ll have to visit the link to discover the “three key factors that resulted in the kind of expensive, embarrassing, late-stage collapse that is the hallmark of a clusterfuck.” But it’s a good thing there’s an “allegedly” in “The ‘cluster’ part of the word allegedly refers to officers’ oak leaf cluster insignia”; it does no such thing. OED:

Etymology: < cluster n. + fuck n.

coarse slang (chiefly U.S.).

1. A sexual orgy. Also Mongolian cluster fuck.
1965 E. Village Other Oct. 2/3 As soon as they legalize ‘pornies’ I’ll be the first producer to hit the neighborhood theatres with my now in progress epic film titled ‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’!
[…]

2. Originally Military. A bungled or botched undertaking; (also) a situation, state of affairs, or gathering (esp. a military operation) that is disorganized or chaotic.
1969 B. E. Holley Let. 12 Mar. in Vietnam 1968–9: Battalion Surgeon’s Jrnl. (1993) 143 These are the screwups that the American public rarely hears about. They happen often enough over here that we have a term for them—‘cluster-fuck’!
[…]
2001 K. Walker & M. Schone Son of Grifter xxxv. 351 It was a tabloid clusterfuck. Every network, newspaper, local news station, and wire service sent troops.

Comments

  1. I may have encountered the deprecating word “clusterfuck” once in my life. It seems to harbor a prim suggestion that one-on-one is better. But in fact I am nowadays completely disinterested in sexual casuistry of any kind, even etymological. I just say no to polymorphous perversity.

  2. I’m a big fan of “omnishambles” – it adds a connotation of ongoing disaster that’s not always present in clusterfuck or shitshow.

  3. Lars Mathiesen says

    “This has the power of fertilizer, and it is very strong!”

    FWIW, I never thought a clusterfuck was named for actual fucking in a cluster, but denotes fuckups clustering as they will.

    Also, who died and made Stu the arbiter of perversity?

  4. The folk etymology seems to have been sourced from Urban Dictionary.

    However, the OED etymology is not really very enlightening, as any connection between sense 1 (very obscure and probably obsolete) and the common sense 2 that everyone knows isn’t elaborated upon. I’d find it easier to believe that it was popularized by analogy with cluster bombs, which were in widespread use during the Vietnam era, than that it was in any way associated with officer’s insignia. (Oak leaf clusters, which are awarded for winning the same medal more than once, are hardly a conspicuous or universal part of an officer’s uniform.)

  5. Prima facie, “clusterfuck” might be a clipping of “cluster-fuckup”, but I Googled little evidence of the latter and none for its priority.

  6. David Marjanović says

    FWIW, I never thought a clusterfuck was named for actual fucking in a cluster, but denotes fuckups clustering as they will.

    Same here, and I strongly suspect the hapax legomenon from 1965 was a pun on the usual sense.

  7. January First-of-May says

    Same here, and I strongly suspect the hapax legomenon from 1965 was a pun on the usual sense.

    Seconded on both.
    (Though I guess it could be a coincidence as well – someone independently coming up with the same phrase in a different context.)

    Would cluster bombs have already been a thing in 1965?

  8. Yep.

  9. Same here, and I strongly suspect the hapax legomenon from 1965 was a pun on the usual sense.

    No, because it’s not a hapax, I just quoted the first citation because that wasn’t the sense being discussed. (Notice the ellipses…) Since it’s become an issue, here are the other citations:

    1970 in R. Thorp & R. Blake Music of their Laughter 92/1 I’ve been exposed to a cluster-fuck, but I’ve never done anything of that nature.
    1977 National Lampoon Aug. 50 They’re usually pretty wrapped up in a cluster-fuck with the photo models.
    2001 Max Power Dec. 43/3 Petite little blonde, Claudia, hangs about, clearly hoping for a spin around the block and a Mongolian Cluster Fuck under the sheets.

  10. I can’t recall a single time where a) I saw someone spell SNAFU in all caps outside of the origin of the word or b) it was not “used as a synonym for minor malfunctions and hiccups”. It really grinds against my sense of language to hear snafu used as an adjective.

    I second nemanja as well on “omnishambles”. Always gave me a sense of a zombie-like catastrophe, slowly chasing down every last survivor who hopes to avoid its grisly end, until all that’s left are TPS reports and waiting in traffic.

  11. I have no issue with OED’s chronological ordering of senses, given that it is a historical dictionary; however, it might usefully make freer use of its now the usual sense label.

  12. “FUBAR” is from “fucked up beyond all recognition“; I have never heard “repair” before. The earliest OED citation (from 1944) defines it with “recognition” (as well as the euphemized “fouled”), indicating that it was in circulation as military slang during the Second World War.

    The name “cluster bomb” would probably have become familiar to Americans with the commencement of the massive bombing campaign over Vietnam and Laos in March 1965 (Operation Rolling Thunder). The Vietnam War saw the first really massive use of incendiary cluster bombs (which burn zirconium, as it happens, which means that many countries heavily restrict zirconium exports). Previous uses had been on a smaller scale (such as Molotov’s bread baskets dropped on Finland) and were likely not so familiar to Americans.

  13. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I’m doubtful the evidence supports the conjecture that the metaphorical sense may have come first and the literal sense second.

    The OED team has produced a separate dictionary of F-words (Sheidlower 2009) that offers the following:

    clusterfuck noun

    1. an orgy.

    1965 East Village Other (Oct.) 2/3: As soon as they legalize ‘‘pornies’’ I’ll be the first producer to hit the neighborhood theatres with my now in progress epic film titled ‘‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck!’’ 1967-68 N. von Hoffman We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against 182: Oh, those big cluster fucks! I can’t stand them. 1968 ‘‘A. D’Arcangelo’’ Homosexual Handbook 115: You may see many of the people at your ‘‘do’’ only at other ‘‘cluster fucks,’’ having nothing in common with them but a taste for orgies. 1969 G. D. Bartell Group Sex 134: One advantage of open versus closed swinging, according to most of our informants, is the possibility of ‘‘three-on-one’’ or ‘‘gang bang’’ (sometimes called ‘‘clusterfuck’’) activity. 1972 R.A. Wilson Playboy’s Handbook of Forbidden Words 69: Cluster Fuck—Two men copulating simultaneously with the same woman. 1975 G. Legman No Laughing Matter 754: The cheap hippie ‘‘group-grope’’ and ‘‘cluster-fuck.’’ 1977 National Lampoon (Aug.) 50: Well, they’re usually pretty wrapped up in a cluster-fuck with the photo models. 1986 J. Ellroy Suicide Hill 699: I’m startin’ to feel like the bottom man in a Mongolian cluster fuck. 2001 J. Ellroy Cold Six Thousand xxi: Pete saw cartoons and FBI text. Hate and smut—a coon named Bayard Rustin—a queer cluster-fuck.

    2. Military. a bungled or confused undertaking or situation; mess; (also) a disorganized group of individuals.

    1969 in B. E. Holley Vietnam (1993) 143: These are the screwups that the American public rarely hears about. They happen often enough over here that we have a term for them—‘‘cluster-fuck’’! 1974 New York City man, age 27: A clusterfuck was a big expression in [the N.Y. National Guard] in 1969. It meant any time people were standing around outside of a regular formation. They’d say, ‘‘What the hell is this clusterfuck?’’ ‘‘Break up this clusterfuck.’’ 1982 J. M. Del Vecchio 13th Valley 42: This place looks like a giant clusterfuck. Ibid. 137: We gonna get this clusterfuck up in the air?
    […] 1988 P.J. O’Rourke Holidays in Hell 218: ‘‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’’ is the technical term journalists use for a preplanned, wholly scripted, news-free event. […]

    3. Originally Military. a bungler; idiot.
    […]

    cluster-fuck verb

    1. to participate in an orgy; (also) to gang-bang.

    1971 F. Hunter Gay Insider vii. 134: In the bird sanctuary … you can cluster-fuck with relative impunity. […]

    2.a. Originally Military. to congregate or behave in a disorganized manner.

    1983W. D. Ehrhart Vietnam to Perkasie 162 [refers to 1967]: All those amtracs clusterfuckin’ around the CP yesterday—Charlie knew somethin’ was up. […]

    b. to victimize, to doom; (also) to make confused or disorganized.

    It may also be worth noting that Sanders (2011) claims that Mongolian Cluster Fuck was an actual film of sorts.

    Panna Grady continued to invite me and other Fugs to parties at her apartment at the Dakota, and we became friends. […]
    I asked Panna if I could do some filming at her apartment, and she agreed. A day or so later I showed up at the Dakota. I had made a big cloth banner with the words ‘‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’’ on it, which I unfurled in her sumptuous living room. I invited Piero Heliczer and several damosels willing to take off their clothes to the filming. Soon everybody was naked in front of the ‘‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’’ banner.
    Panna saw what was going to happen and quickly sent her maid home for the day.
    It was actually pretty innocent footage. […]

    So it’s proven the literal sense appears in the New York counter-cultural scene no later than 1965 and spreads in print over the following decade. The metaphorical sense doesn’t seem to get into print until the eighties, though people recall it being used in Vietnam in the late sixties. There seems to be no trace of its usage in the US military before Vietnam.

    Our conjecture is certainly consistent with the military slang term arising in Vietnam because that’s when the US started using cluster bombs on a massive scale. However, didn’t US bombing campaigns start after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, and the deployment of US combat troops in 1965?

    I know there was US military personnel in Vietnam in the early sixties already, but is it likely that their slang would quickly make it to the East Village? Isn’t it more likely that “clusterfuck” would move the other way round when hundreds of thousands of Americans were drafted into Vietnam?

  14. Thanks for that; I should have thought to check Sheidlower.

  15. Ockham’s Razor (“Clusterfucks should not be multiplied without necessity”) generally suggests that a literal or compositional meaning would come before a figurative one. Moreover, if the figurative sense of clusterfuck came first, might expect it to appear first in a more transparent form like “cluster fuck-up” or “clustered fuck-up.” Of course, early appearances of profane expressions tend to be poorly documented, so it is not impossible that such forms were at one point in use. However, I think the evidence points to the “orgy” sense as most likely the original.

  16. “The metaphorical sense doesn’t seem to get into print until the eighties”:

    Dan Gerber — Kayak magazine (1970) and American Atlas (1973) p.25;
    Gloria Emerson — Winners and Losers (1976) p.216.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Re the “Sanders (2011)” reference, it turns out that Panna Grady’s papers from that era are now held by a university research library, and include a file labeled “Parties.” Perhaps there are other period gems of lexical innovation lurking therein? https://library.buffalo.edu/pl/collections/detail.html?ID=137

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Also, who died and made Stu the arbiter of perversity?

    Show some respect, man!
    He’s earned that right.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I too support nemanja’s “omnishambles.”

    For me, “omnishambles” has the quintessentially British nuance of a slow-motion accumulation of unforced errors resulting from rank amateurism and general lack of focus. A “clusterfuck”, on the other hand, has the much more vigorous American air of highly active and enthusiastic high-precision professional stupidity. Suez crisis versus bombing Cambodia.

    We should not forget, of course, that “omnishambles” is much more refined.

  20. For the Israelis, the Suez Crisis was a stunning victory. For France and Britain, it was an omnishambles. For Egypt, it was a clusterfuck militarily, and yet ultimately a diplomatic win.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    All the excuse I need to link (for the three Hatters who don’t know it already):

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b77rk

  22. This content is not available in your location.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Pity. The transcript doesn’t do justice to Bevan’s comic timing and delivery.

    I haven’t been able to find an untrammeled version for the benefit of Foreigners and Colonials, though Youtube does have Bevan’s “Get out! Get out!” Trafalgar Square speech:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZmw8XIoZeY

  24. David Marjanović says

    The military sense “disorganized group” strongly suggests that the literal sense is the oldest.

    “FUBAR” is from “fucked up beyond all recognition“; I have never heard “repair” before.

    I’ve seen both repeatedly (with and without “fouled”).

  25. Seeing the phrase “Mongolian cluster fuck” reminds me that I’ve also seen, dating to the more racist times of the 1970s or so (and probably earlier), “Mongolian fire drill” and “Chinese fire drill”; phrases meant to summarize a chaotic and noisy messed-up situation or scenario.

    I’m wondering if “M. fire drill” was meant to be a euphemism for “M. cluster fuck”, or if a “M. cluster fuck” was a more intense version of an “M. fire drill”. Was the “Mongolian cluster fuck” porn film called that because the phrase already existed?

    A google books search [ “fire drill” slang ] suggests that “Polish fire drill” was similarly used. Well, they also told Polish jokes back then too.

    Slang dictionaries date “Chinese fire drill” to 1946. There’s also a meaning from the 1970s, as a prank where when a car is stopped at a red light, everyone gets out of the car and changes places (presumably before the light turns green?)

    Oddly, though I recall seeing “Mongolian fire drill” in print at some point, I don’t see it in the slang dictionaries brought up by Google books. Hm.

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