May 21, 2007


Here's another sign of the current Cosmic Chicken Convergence. According to Paul Kane's Capitol Briefing blog ("McCain, Cornyn Engage in Heated Exchange")

During a meeting Thursday on immigration legislation, McCain and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) got into a shouting match when Cornyn started voicing concerns about the number of judicial appeals that illegal immigrants could receive, according to multiple sources -- both Democrats and Republicans -- who heard firsthand accounts of the exchange from lawmakers who were in the room.

At a bipartisan gathering in an ornate meeting room just off the Senate floor, McCain complained that Cornyn was raising petty objections to a compromise plan being worked out between Senate Republicans and Democrats and the White House. He used a curse word associated with chickens and accused Cornyn of raising the issue just to torpedo a deal.

The New York Times may "take shit from the president", but the Washington Post is apparently not yet willing to accept chickenshit from a mere senator. Amazingly, Andrew Sullivan was (at least temporarily) baffled by this bit of bowdlerization.

The American Heritage Dictionary has an entry that covers Senator McCain's usage:

NOUN: Vulgar Slang Contemptibly petty, insignificant nonsense.
ADJECTIVE: 1. Contemptibly unimportant; petty. 2. Cowardly; afraid.

But the august OED does not: it recognizes only

chicken-shit (coarse slang, orig. U.S.), a coward; also used as a general term of abuse; also attrib. or as adj.

with citations back to 1947:

1947 C. WILLINGHAM End as Man xvi. 192 You're both acting like *chicken-shits. We win a batch of money—you're afraid to take it.
1948 N. MAILER Naked & Dead I. i. 7 ‘What's the matter?’ he asked. ‘You going chickenshit?’
1968 Southerly XXVIII. 281 ‘You're just a pile of compromising chickenshit,’ Gillian says in a whisper.
1969 C. HIMES Blind Man with Pistol xix. 203 She's a slut, just a chickenshit whore.
1970 It 12-25 Feb. 17/1 American groups are not so chickenshit about getting into underground work.

1988 ‘DR. DRE’ et al. Fuck Tha Police (song) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 238 The jury has found you guilty of being a red-neck, white-bread chicken-shit motherfucker.

The gloss "also used as a general term of abuse" is intended to cover uses like Senator McCain's, but it's way too general for the specific meaning that the AHD tags as "contemptibly petty, insignificant nonsense".

And actually, I'm not sure that the AHD has it entirely right. When I look back over my own extensive experience of chickenshit regulations, chickenshit objections, and the people who make use of them -- all encountered in earlier jobs or with people no longer among my circle of acquaintances, I hasten to add -- I agree that chickenshit is always contemptible, and frequently petty, but it is by no means always insignificant. More important, the gloss "petty, insignificant nonsense" leaves something out, something related to Harry Frankfurt's pathbreaking analysis of bullshit:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Similarly, it seems to me that the essence of chickenshit -- or at least a critical factor in chickenshit -- is an analogous implicit misrepresentation of motives. Bruce Schneier put his finger on one example in his essay "Why Smart Cops do Dumb Things":

Since 9/11, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars defending ourselves from terrorist attacks. Stories about the ineffectiveness of many of these security measures are common, but less so are discussions of why they are so ineffective. In short: Much of our country's counterterrorism security spending is not designed to protect us from the terrorists, but instead to protect our public officials from criticism when another attack occurs.

He calls this "Cover Your Ass security". Whether or not he's right about the particular examples he cites, the phenomenon clearly exists. And everyone has encountered many other cases where elaborate regulations and precautions seem not to be connected to any rational calculation of risk and cost, but instead to have some other motivation. It could be CYA, but it could also be bureaucratic aggrandizement and turf protection -- if the people in the regulatory biz just sit around without creating, modifying and enforcing regulations, jobs might be cut. Ditto with the people in the business of keeping records. There are good reasons for regulations and for record-keeping, but in addition, some of the people involved in the process have another motive to create and enforce non-functional complexity.

Maybe the commonest hidden motivation is simply money -- insurers have an interest in imposing chickenshit procedures on those they insure, and similarly with government agencies and their clients. And chickenshit regulations or procedures can also mask plain old conflict between individuals or groups.

The key point about chickenshit regulations and procedures is not that they are unproductive or even counter-productive, and the key thing about chickenshit objections is not that they are invalid. The essential point is that their authors just don't care, one way or the other. Their motivations are orthogonal to considerations of effectiveness and validity.

In the case of Thursday's senatorial dispute, Kane's description makes it clear that Senator M felt that Senator's C's objections to detailed aspects of the immigration bill were hiding a different set of motives: philosophical objections to immigration reform, or political calculation about the effects of a bipartisan deal on the subject. It would be childish and counterproductive to lose your temper at a fellow law-maker for paying sincere attention to the details of a bill, but it's normal to get angry at someone who hides general and fundamental disagreement behind a blizzard of specific objections. And you have little to lose, in that circumstance, by indulging in a little plain talk.

(More Language Log posts on the bovine variety of metaphorical excrement: "Bullshit", 2/17/2005; "Bovine excrement on NPR", 3/11/2005; "Labov's test", 8/17/2005; "Bullshit: invented by T.S. Eliot in 1910?"; "Maybe it was John Dryden", 8/20/2005; "British Science: West Point takes the lead", 8/21/2005; "The great tradition", 9/2/2005; "The ultimate nightmare becomes an everyday reality", 1/10/2007)

[Update -- Stephen Ambrose discusses the WWII roots of chickenshit here. He quotes a definition from Paul Fussell's Wartime, which sums it up nicely:

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.


[Update -- Bruce Rusk writes:

I have to disagree with you knocking of the AHD for the "Contemptibly unimportant; petty." definition. I've heard and read the word in this sense, and this is the way I'd be most likely to use it myself (perhaps there's some regional variation?).

Here are some quickly googled examples:

Inflation made your fortunes *worth chickenshit* and you end up becoming the town drunk.

we get paid chickenshit - compared to the amount of hours..

“You flunked. You are the proud possessors of nothing at all. Whenever Lawndale High School gets around to giving you a diploma, it will be worth chickenshit given your miniscule levels of intellectual achievement. And Lane…!”

the $17 million stock offered by Wetherell would be worth chickenshit few months later...Maybe BG can eat it dumbhead...

Also, Google Books yields ten results for "chickenshit job"; here's a prime one:

I want my dad to be proud of me, but I am not going to suck up to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who offers me a dead-end, *chickenshit job* just so dad can boast ... (If You Walked In My Shoes - Page 180)

So while this sense may be much less common than the others, it's hard to read these example in any other way (and it's usage seems to be nominal rather than adjectival, most clearly in the collocation "worth chickenshit").

I doubt that there is much regional variation on this point -- all the cited examples seem idiomatic to me. There's clearly a range of uses for which "contemptibly petty" is about right. But then there are other cases where the "nonsense" part comes into play, as a lack of fit between ostensible purpose and actual motive.]

[Update #2 -- Andy Hollenbeck writes:

The Washington Post's avoidance of curse words in the case of McCain vs. Cornyn is another example of how NOT using the word itself can lead, or mislead, readers to misunderstand what actually happened. As I read the excerpt from Paul Kane's blog, when I got to the bit about McCain using "a curse word associated with chickens ," I assumed that McCain had called him a cock. Or maybe even a pecker.

The circumlocution can leave one wondering whether McCain was attacking Cornyn's acts or launching a personal verbal assault directly at Cornyn -- which may have repercussions among voters trying to decide what type of president McCain would be.

And Frederick Dicky writes:

The Fussell quote quote you give concerning the origins of chickenshit is exactly correct in my opinion. I served in the US Army in the 68-70 timeframe and chickenshit was alive and well in exactly sense given in the quote. I probably heard the term used more times in the Army then I have since I left the Army in 1970. For me, the term is primarily a military term. McCain served in the Navy at roughly the same time I served in the Army. I assume the term was also common in the Navy. When I read your quote concerning McCain's use of the term, my first thought was that McCain, the former Naval aviator, not the senator, was speaking.

Yes, my experience in the Army around 1969 was the same, and my reaction to McCain's usage was similar.]

[Update #3: Jay Cummings writes:

I think Bruce Rusk's examples are heavily influenced by the expression "chickenfeed" meaning something of little worth. To me, chickenfeed would be a noun and chickenshit an adjective, ordinarily. Hence, "chickenshit job" makes sense, but the other examples, saying something is "worth chicken___" should use chickenfeed.

Chickenfeed, chickenshit, it's all the same in the end.

The resonance with chickenfeed is very relevant to some of Bruce Rusk's examples. But the (originally military?) use of chickenshit, described by Fussell, can certainly be a noun as a well as an adjective.]

[Update #4 -- Mark Paris writes:

I don't have anything to add regarding the language use of chickenshit, but I would like to defend the existence chickenshit itself, at least in some cases. The most obvious case to me is in some government procurement regulations. Critics have cited long federal acquisition regulations specifying, for example, how creme-filled cookies must be made for bidding on federal contracts. That and many other examples certainly seem idiotic, until you consider what contractors might try to pass off as creme-filled cookies in the absence of minutely specified ingredients. Given the alternative, maybe chickenshit regulations are not such a bad idea in some cases.

If the specifications genuinely protect America's consumers of federally-procured creme-filled cookies, then they aren't chickenshit, at least by my lights. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 21, 2007 08:03 AM