August 17, 2005

Bullshit: invented by T.S. Eliot in 1910?

In discussing Jim Holt's New Yorker piece on bullshit, I neglected to mention what Holt has to say about the etymology:

The word “bull,” used to characterize discourse, is of uncertain origin. One venerable conjecture was that it began as a contemptuous reference to papal edicts known as bulls (from the bulla, or seal, appended to the document). Another linked it to the famously nonsensical Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer in London during the reign of Henry VII. It was only in the twentieth century that the use of “bull” to mean pretentious, deceitful, jejune language became semantically attached to the male of the bovine species—or, more particularly, to the excrement therefrom. Today, it is generally, albeit erroneously, thought to have arisen as a euphemistic shortening of “bullshit,” a term that came into currency, dictionaries tell us, around 1915.

Holt apparently got his information from the OED, which is much more dismissive of those "venerable conjectures" than his description might lead a reader to believe:

No foundation appears for the guess that the word originated in ‘a contemptuous allusion to papal edicts’, nor for the assertion of the ‘British Apollo’ (No. 22. 1708) that ‘it became a Proverb from the repeated Blunders of one Obadiah Bull, a Lawyer of London, who liv'd in the Reign of K. Henry the Seventh’.

Though the OED admits the word bull in the sense "Trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense" is "of unknown origin", it directs our attention to

OF. boul, boule, bole fraud, deceit, trickery; mod.Icel. bull ‘nonsense’; also ME. bull BUL ‘falsehood’, and BULL v.3, to befool, mock, cheat.

all of which seem sounder references than those that Holt chooses to quote.

Holt also neglects to tell us that the OED's two earliest citations for bullshit are from Wyndham Lewis and E.E. Cummings:

c1915 WYNDHAM LEWIS Let. (1963) 66 Eliot has sent me Bullshit and the Ballad for Big Louise. They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry.
1928 E. E. CUMMINGS Enormous Room vii. 194 When we asked him once what he thought about the war, he replied, ‘I t'ink lotta bullsh--t.’

But the first citation is self-debunking, since it refers to the title of something written earlier! And indeed, according to this paper (Loretta Johnson, "T.S. Eliot's Bawdy Verse: Lulu, Bolo and More Ties", Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 14-25), the letter in question was sent to Ezra Pound and refers to some poems that Eliot had written earlier:

On February 2, 1915, Lewis wrote to Pound, "Eliot has sent me Bullshit & the Ballad for Big Louise." He mistitles "The Triumph of Bullshit" and "Ballade pour la grosse Lulu." "They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry ... I am longing to print them in Blast; but stick to my naif determination to have no 'Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger.'_"

Johnson explains that:

"The Triumph of Bullshit" and "Ballade pour la grosse Lulu" address the vagaries of publishing and the mediocrity of the press. ... In three octaves and a final quatrain, the narrator thumbs his nose at the "Ladies" who are reading his work and determining its fate. In the first three stanzas he addresses the "Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited," "Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous," and "Ladies who think me unduly vociferous." Then each stanza ends with "For Christ's sake stick it up your ass." The abababab, cdcdcdcd, and efefefef rhymes are unconventional, linking "waited" with "alembicated," "constipated," and "imitated." And "small" rhymes partially with "galamatias" and "ass." The final stanza refers to the word "bullshit" in the title. "It" shall triumph when "with silver foot" they step in it, "among the Theories scattered on the grass." "And then for Christ's sake," the narrator adds, "stick them up your ass."

Apparently Eliot's Bullshit was originally ungendered:

The first version of "Triumph," written or transcribed probably in 1910, addresses the "Critics" instead of the "Ladies." When it first was written, Eliot was not in print, except for poems in the Smith Record and the Harvard Advocate. In 1914, he wrote to Aiken stating he was writing and enclosed his "war poem," entitled "UP BOYS AND AT 'EM," which ends: "But the cabin boy was sav'd alive/ And bugger'd, in the sphincter." Eliot, perhaps amused by the idea of offending sensitive female taste, joked about publishing the Notebook, naming it "Inventions of the March Hare." He wrote he could give a few lectures and become a "sentimental Tommy," punning on his name and alluding to poetry readings at Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop in London and the popularity of J.M. Barrie's Sentimental Tommy (1896). Critical of the "Ladies" who influence popular taste, Eliot yearned to be published, in part to impress his father. According to Valerie Eliot, when they parted for the last time at the end of his 1915 visit, Eliot was convinced that his father thought him a failure." Publication might reverse that problem.

When Eliot changed "Critics" to "Ladies" in 1916, he changed the meaning significantly. Ricks suggests that Eliot may have felt "at the mercy" of several women, including his wife. Other "Ladies" could have been Dora Marsden and Harriet Weaver of The New Freewoman, editors from whom Pound, in contest with Amy Lowell, tried as early as 1913 to wrest some editorial control. Pound was also working on Harriet Monroe to publish Eliot's poetry. After his premature discontent and following the instrumental encouragement of Pound, Eliot began to publish. Monroe published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in the 1915 issue of Poetry. She also accepted "The Boston Evening Transcript," "Cousin Nancy," and "Aunt Helen" for the October 1915 issue.

I guess this must be the 1916 version of The Triumph of Bullshit:

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out "this stuff is too stiff for us" -
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous - all this will pass;
Quite innocent - "he only wants to make shiver us."
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the Theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ's sake stick them up your ass.

I haven't been able to find the 1910 version.

But anyhow, I don't believe that T.S. Eliot really invented bullshit in 1910. He could hardly have aimed to shock the "ladies" by naming his little poem "The Triumph of Bullshit" if the term had not already been a commonplace vulgarity.

[Update: Steve from Language Hat emailed

To complete the modernist trifecta, Ezra Pound used it in 1914 in a letter to Joyce:
"I enclose a prize sample of bull shit."
(That's the first clearly metaphorical use cited in HDAS; they include a couple of references to the actual excrement of the bull from much earlier.)

"HDAS" is the Oxford Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

And Uche Ogbuji at Copia has some thoughts about Eliot's Triumph:

Horrid genius. Eliot attaches several senses to "ladies", including (and this is the sense that does find best concord with the poem), the society matrons who influenced popular, and hence critical, taste. But Eliot is also a bit of a coward here. ...

... when it's time for brave, open sally, Eliot prefers weak targets.

Or at least targets that he can treat as weak.

Anyhow, it's -- poetic justice? -- to find Pound, Eliot and Joyce all lexicographically implicated in the origins of bullshit. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 17, 2005 05:43 PM