June 23, 2007

BBC approves "shite" and "gobshite" (in moderation)

In case you were wondering, it's apparently okay to call someone a shite, a gobshite, or even a bogshite on the airwaves of Northern Ireland. The BBC Trust received a complaint from a listener of Gerry Anderson's morning show on Radio Ulster after Anderson used all three epithets to refer to his broadcasting colleagues. As The Times reports, the BBC Trust rejected the complaint, though Anderson must now diminish his use of these words:

Asked to rule on the complaint, the BBC Trust editorial standards committee found that the words carried little more offence than “eejit” in Irish slang.
It ruled: “The meaning conveyed by the words ‘shite’ and ‘gobshite’ in the vernacular of Northern Ireland, and in the context of this programme in particular, was different from other parts of the UK in that they did necessarily not carry the same level of offence and aggression and could be seen as a form of comedic banter.” The language was also “appropriate for children listening during school holidays”.
However, Anderson must submit to a quota of colourful language and Radio Ulster must “mitigate the overuse of the words”.
The trust said that the station had “set in place a system that ensured the programme did not use these words in a way that went beyond the audience’s expectation”.

The BBC Trust is careful to say that these words are not very offensive in Northern Ireland, as opposed to "other parts of the UK." I wonder where those "other parts" might be. Shite, in addition to its Irish and Northern Irish usage, is still commonly heard in Scotland (appearing more than a dozen times in the script for Trainspotting) as well as northern England. In southern England, according to commenters on the always enlightening Separated by a Common Language blog, shite is considered a jocular alternative to shit, perhaps due to its association with Irish/Scottish/Northern usage. Shite and gobshite can't be all that bad, since they appear unasterisked in BBC America's British American Dictionary (previously discussed here), as opposed to sh*t (or c*nt or f*ck). And neither appears in a recent study commissioned by the BBC on rude words in British English. I can't speculate about bogshite, as it appears to be a relatively recent innovation (it doesn't appear in the authoritative slang dictionaries like Cassell's and only gets about 140 Googlehits). But it looks to be a playful metathesis of gobshite, helped along by the British colloquialism bog meaning 'toilet.'

Gobshite is an interesting case, because even though it is now identified as chiefly Irish slang, it actually has an older documented history in American usage, surprisingly enough. The word has been used at least since 1910 to refer to an enlisted seaman in the US Navy, according to the OED and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. HDAS editor Jonathan Lighter suggests that the Navy usage of gobshite is derived from another presumably earlier sense meaning "an expectorated wad of chewing tobacco." (Sailors on both sides of the Atlantic have long been associated with tobacco dribble, as illustrated by the related nautical epithets gob and gobby.) No pre-1910 cites for the chewing tobacco sense of gobshite have turned up yet, however — the earliest that Lighter has found dates to 1918, in an unpublished "manuscript glossary of US Navy terms" by Laurence G. Noyes (also cited by Lighter in his 1972 American Speech article, "The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, 1917-1919: An Historical Glossary").

So how did the Irish English pejorative gobshite develop? It has only been attested since 1948, according to the OED's draft entry of March 2002 (which defines the sense as "a stupid, incompetent, or gullible person; a person who talks nonsense or talks incessantly; a loudmouth"). The OED surmises that the Irish English usage may have arisen independently from the US Navy usage, and it may possibly be the earlier of the two senses, even if the citational evidence doesn't yet support that theory. Moreover, the Irish version could represent an assimilation, with a previously distinct word merging into gobshite. Bernard Share's Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang relates gobshite to Irish English gobshell meaning 'a gobbet of spittle.' Further confusing matters are the various meanings of gob that seem to be at play in the development of gobshite: as a noun gob can mean either 'mass, lump, gobbet' or 'beak, bill, mouth,' and as a verb it can mean 'to spit.' In the current use of gobshite, the gob element is primarily understood as a colloquialism for 'mouth': a contributor to BBC America's online dictionary succinctly defines gobshite as "one who speaks shite out of their gob."

Though the slang use of gob for 'mouth' is largely unknown in the US, it pops up in various expressions that Americans are familiar with. Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstoppers owe their name to the British term for what Americans usually call "jawbreakers": pieces of hard candy that "stop" (close) your "gob" (mouth). Then there's gobsmacked 'flabbergasted, astounded,' which is one of those Briticisms that some Americans pick up without quite appreciating the semantic particulars — in this case, the feeling of being astounded is equated with the feeling of being smacked in the mouth. (And I'll be gobsmacked if I don't receive at least a few emails from UK readers pointing out some detail or other where my American eyes and ears have led me astray.)

[Update #1: Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language has this to say about bogshite:

Two untested hypotheses on bogshite:

(a) '(the) bog' is BrE slang for toilet/(AmE) bathroom, so it could be 'toiletshit', (b) Ireland has lots of peat bogs, so maybe it's relate to that — 'shit of the Irish earth', as it were. I'm preferring (b) since the term seems to have more currency in Ireland (I didn't know it before) and because of this quote:
"Fecking smell of turf and other Bogshite."
or this one:
"Trust me, I'm Irish as they come, I just don't sound like a bogshite from Cork."
Just asked Better Half and he said 'it's Northern', to which I said 'isn't it Irish?' and he replied 'Isn't it about the Irish? They're bogshite, they come from the bogs'.

So, that's what I can add (pure speculation), for what it's worth!

Joe Stynes agrees with the second explanation and further elaborates:

I'm sure the "bog" in "bogshite" is from a variety of Irish insults relating to country bumpkins, rustics, rednecks, call them what you will, used mainly by the urban sophisticates of the World City that is modern Dublin. "Bogger" is perhaps the standard of these insults. "Bogwog" I believe had some currency among the British Army. "Bogball" is an pejorative name for Gaelic football popularised by "Hot Press", a music newspaper written by aspiring bohemian-metropolitans in Dublin who presumably prefer soccer or rugby. See also "the mist that do be on the bog". Thus, a "bogshite" would be a gobshite from the bogs. ]

[Update #2: Apropos of shit/shite usage, Jonathan Knibb sends along his "all-time favourite limerick":

IIRC I found it in Kingsley Amis' autobiography, attributed there to Philip Larkin; I can only find one Google hit for it, which unfortunately disagrees, attributing it to Robert Conquest. Oh well:
A usage that's seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite;
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive and trite.

Michael Albaugh emails to point out that Amis and Conquest co-edited several anthologies, which could explain the confused attribution of the limerick.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 23, 2007 12:05 AM