August 21, 2005

British Science: West Point takes the lead

Well, John Dryden and the Duke of Buckingham are still leading the words as turds parade in the general category, but the U.S. Military Academy's "annual yearbook" the Howitzer has dethroned T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the race for the earlier reference in writing to the specific term B.S. and its relatives. Ben Zimmer pointed out by email that HDAS cites B.S. from the Howitzer in 1900, in a volume not yet available digitally. Ben also cites a glossary of West Point Slang ("Published for the benefit of our struggling relatives and others who try to read our letters"), from the 1905 issue of the Howitzer and available from the U.S. Military Academy Digital Library, with these entries:

B-essy -- An adjective used to describe a person addicted to the use of superfluous or flowery language.
B.S. -- British science: the English language. Superfluous talk.
Big Green B. S. -- Popular name for Williams' "Composition and Rhetoric."
Little Green B. S. -- Abbot's "How to Write Clearly."
Red B. S. -- Meiklejohn's "English Language."

The gloss for "B.S." is especially nice.

Ben also made the general observation that

Taboo restrictions on "shit", "crap", etc. certainly limit historical investigations into the "language as excrement" metaphor. But it's interesting to note that various nonsensical terms for nonsense have been *interpreted* to refer to excrement in some euphemistic fashion. So, for instance, "horsefeathers" is widely believed to be a euphemism for "horseshit", though there is no solid evidence for that derivation [1], [2]. Similarly, "poppycock" is often reported to be an Anglicization of a Dutch word, pappekak, meaning 'soft dung'. But no such word has been found in Dutch dictionaries, and the etymological conjecture was put forth by Webster's New International 2nd Edition (1934) more than eighty years after the earliest known usage of "poppycock" [3]. Then there's "bushwa", which HDAS says is probably from French bourgeois, though it is now taken to be a euphemism for "bullshit".

It's readers like Ben who have enabled us to establish the position of Language Log in the highly competitive field of B.S. scholarship.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 21, 2005 08:06 AM