When we selected Shitstorm as “Anglicism of the Year 2011” a few weeks ago, several US blogs quicky agreed that our choice was inevitable given our nationality: as Germans, we are “obsessed with poop” (Huffington Post), or even “infatuated with crap” (Death and Taxes). Only Slate’s Katy Waldman wondered why Germans, if they are obsessed with feces, would have to borrow scatological terminology from English.
This bit of amateur cultural psychology reminded me that I still owe a blog post to Kathrin Passig, who, prompted by an altogether brainless Vanity Fair article, asked me some months ago about scientific support for this supposed Teutonic obsession with human waste. So here is my answer, – in English, since I hope that it will be relevant not just for my usual German audience (who will no doubt be surprised to learn about their fixation on fecal matters), but also for the English-speaking audience for whom this fixation is so self-evident that they see the existence of the English word shitstorm as evidence for it.
The stereotype about Germany as a culture enarmored with excretion goes back to the monograph Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded: Urban Folklore From the Paperwork Empire by the American folklorist Alan Dundes, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley until his death in 2005. Now, I say “monograph”, but despite the academic ring that this word has, Dundes book does not actually meet academic standards even by the, I assume, rather lax (ha!) standards of folkloristics. If my students were to submit term papers as unstructured, poorly argued and flimsily sourced as Dundes’ book, a shitstorm would be certain to ensue. To answer Kathrin’s question right away and spare her the rest of this post: There is no scientific evidence for Dundes’ claims. It is all in his head, and no linguist, anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist in their right mind would waste their time in order to look for the evidence that Dundes fails to supply.
Having settled that issue, why don’t I give you a taste of Dundes’ arguments, and demolish a few of them (not that I’m the first to do so, and not that it is going to convince the kind of people who are likely to believe Dundes’ claims in the first place).
1. Dundes claims that “[i]n German folklore, one finds an inordinate number of texts concerned with anality. … Folksongs, folktales, proverbs, riddles, folk speech – all attest to the Germans’ longstanding special interest in this area of human activity” (p. 9). Not that Dundes supports this claim with actual evidence, as in listing (a representative sample of) these texts. “It would take far too long”, he writes, “to list every idiomatic expression in German–either literal or metaphorical–that treats the act of defecation. I shall present some representative examples of this empirically observable tendency in German culture.” (p. 9). Those examples are: Variants of four German proverbs, and two riddles.
Now, if we’re playing a game of “representative examples”, I’ll call your four German examples and raise you five English examples: (1) You don’t shit where you eat; (2) Don’t shit on your own doorstep; (3) Shit or get off the pot; (4) When you’re up to your nose in shit, keep your mouth shut; (5) Life is like a shit sandwich, the more bread you have the less shit you have to eat. And here are three English riddles to your two German riddles: (1) Why are men like public toilets? All the good ones are engaged and the only ones left are full of shit; (2) Why are men like laxatives? They irritate the shit out of you; (3) Why did Piglet look in the toilet? He wanted to see Pooh!
2. Dundes claims that German farmers (but not farmers in other cultures) used to keep a manure pile in the back yard, to be used as fertilizer (p. 12ff.). Again, he does not actually have any evidence that this is something particular about German culture. He writes: “It is by no means certain that all cultures encouraged the presence of manure piles adjacent to dwellings” (p. 15). Well, perhaps he should have done some research to find out. It sounds like the kind of thing even a folklorist should be capable of.
3. Dundes claims that Scheiß(e) (“shit”) – or Scheiss, as he insists on spelling it – is a highly frequent word in German (p. 17). Again, there is no actual evidence. Instead, he cites an Evangelical pastor who told another author that Scheiß(e) is “the most often used word in Germany today” – a claim that is so transparently ridiculus that it hardly deserves serious consideration; and another author who says that Scheiss is “perhaps the most common vulgarism in German” – a much more plausible claim, although it remains to be shown that this is not the case in other languages. The most frequent words in German are the articles der, die, das etc. Scheiß(e) doesn’t even make the Top 500 (and probably not the Top 1000 either).
It is difficult to determine whether Scheiß(e) is more frequent in German than, say, shit is in English, as both are unlikely to occur in the kind of formal, written language corpora that we can use to compare the two languages. Google Books is a good place to start though: At the time of writing, all forms of the word shit taken together occurred 4 150 000 times in Google Books, all forms of the word Scheiße occurred 186 000 times. Of course, there are more English books than German books in the Google Books data base, but if we normalize the frequency to number of occurrences per million (which can be estimated from the frequency of common words like of and von), we find that it is 159 for English and 18 for German. Not exactly a convincing case for a German obsession with shit, even if our estimate turned out to be off by a factor of ten.
4. Dundes claims that Scheiß(e) “is used in everyday German speech in quite a different manner from the way ‘shit’ is used in Anglo-American culture” (p. 17). He gives a few examples:
if a tool broke, a man might exclaim “Scheissding da”, meaning literally “shit thing here” whereas in Anglo-American culture one would be more likely to say “This damn thing.” Other typical expressions include “scheiss’ drauf“ [shit on it] meaning roughly the equivalent of ‘to hell with it’ or ‘what the hell?’ in English. Another expression is “verdammte Scheisse” [damned shit]. Sometimes the phrase consists of intensification through doubling. “Scheissdreck” [shit-dirt] would be an example of such a doublet. A German might also say “das ist mir scheissegal” [It is to me shit same] meaning it’s all the same to me, or I don’t give a damn (shit) or I don’t care. Another popular idiom is “Die Kacke ist am dampfen” [The shit is steaming] which means that the situation is really bad…
I fail to see how the fact that the word Scheiß(e) is used differently in German than in English is any evidence that the Germans are obsessed by it. But note that the differences are in the exact formulation rather than in the substance of these idioms anyway. If a tool breaks, a member of the “Anglo-American culture” might well say This is a really shitty tool; shit (and crap) can be used as interjections in roughly the same situations as (verdammte) Scheiße; the “doublet” shit-ass can be used to express negative attitudes (e.g. Don’t park your shit-ass car in my driveway); as Dundes himself notes, I don’t give a shit is a perfect translation for Das ist mir scheißegal; and if a situation is really bad, members of “Anglo-American culture” might say that they are in deep shit or up shit creek without a paddle, or that the shit has hit the fan. It is highly doubtful that there are significant differences in the number of shit-related idioms between English and German – I’ve listed all the English ones I could think of in the space of fifteen minutes at the end of this entry (feel free to add more in the comments section).
5. Dundes claims that “there is also a literal daily concern with the act of defecation” (p. 18). His evidence for this is not even anecdotal. He simply claims that mothers ask their children “‘Hast du die Hose voll (gemacht)’ [Have you (made) a pants full] … with a tender fact-finding pat on the buttocks”, and that “[m]any adult Germans ask themselves each morning ‘Werde ich heute Stuhlgang haben’ [Will I have a bowel movement today?]. Family members may typically question one another on this matter at some length” (p. 18-19). He also claims that “[s]uch frank discussions often shock or surprise American listeners unfamiliar with this facet of German culture” (p. 19).
I could easily make up the same kind of nonsense about “Anglo-American culture”, of course, but I don’t have to. Just google “bowel movements” and be shocked and surprised at the many Anglo-American internet forums discussing this issue frankly. Google “scat porn” and be even more shocked and surprised by Anglo-American frankness, even without clicking on any of the links (and please don’t click on the links unless you know that you’ll like what you will find). In other words, if you go looking for evidence of a “literal daily concern with the act of defecation”, you will find it in any culture (South Park’s Mr. Hankey was invented by two Americans, for example, and the cineastic masterpiece “2 girls, 1 cup” comes from Brazil).
6. Dundes points at an article “Die Geschichte des Klo” (The history of the toilet) in the German news magazine Stern and a pub in Berlin called the “Klo”. One wonders, what the fact that American academic Julie Lynn Horan has written not one, but two whole books about the history of the toilet (“Sitting pretty: an uninhibited history of the toilet” and “The porcelain god: a social history of the toilet”) tells us about an American obsession with feces. As for a toiled-themed bar, I suggest The John on Burgundy Street in New Orleans.
Dundes goes on an on in this manner, talking about souvenir chamber pots, children’s games, and folklore. In many cases (for example, when he talks about mud wrestling) there is no obvious connection to defecation except for the very tenuous one that Dundes himself constructs and that make the reader wonder who is really obsessed with shit here. He touches upon Erich Maria Remarkque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which includes a scene in an outdoor common latrine, failing to mention that latrines are a theme running through all military literature, German or not. He also mentions Heinrich Bölls Group Portrait with Lady, which does contain a character who seems rather too obsessed with feces, but we could easily match this with almost any novel by Jonathan Franzen.
Dundes’ book becomes extremely tiring extremely quickly as he cherry-picks his way through German folklore, literature and history, claiming (falsely) that the world’s only toilet museum is in Germany, making much of the fact that Hitler is said to have used the term Scheißkerl (“shit guy”) for himself and others as a term of admiration, and so on and so forth. Perhaps in 1984, when his book was published, at least collecting all this material could have been regarded as an admirable feat of scholarship, but Dundes’ study was still methodologically flawed because he only looked for evidence supporting his theory, and not – as even a folklorist should – for evidence against his theory. In the age of the internet, collecting such evicence and counter-evidence has become trivial. Every single claim Dundes makes can be shown to be false, or to apply not exclusively to German culture.
Using his “methodology”, you could take anything you want and prove that it is a national obsession of any randomly chosen nation. Want to show that “Anglo-American culture” is obsessed with fish? Well, here are some proverbs: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets; Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle. Here is a fish-themed bar. American Author Richard Flanagan wrote a whole novel called Gould’s Book of Fish, and fishing also plays an important part in Ernest Hemingway’s writing. The movie Splash shows a subconscious American desire to return to the ocean and live like a fish, and it is no accident that the movie shows a relationship between a human and a mermaid (half-human, half fish) – there is, inevitably, plenty of fish porn to be found on the web (again, don’t click the links unless you actually want to see fish porn). Fish and its derivates are highly frequent words in English, and there are many idiomatic expressions, such as this sounds/smells fishy, to drink like a fish, to be a big fish in a small pond, she’s a cold fish, and many more. American history itself is unthinkable without fish: many American presidents were obsessed with fishing, among them Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Herbert Hoover.
But of course there is an expression for people who try to argue for national character traits on the basis of such obviously skewed evidence: They are full of shit.
English idiomatic expressions with shit: holy shit; you can put glitter on shit but it still stinks; bad shit; beat the shit out of so; bull shit, horse shit, chicken shit; buy shit; can’t remember shit; carry shit; cling like shit to a shovel; close as stink on shit; colder than shit, hotter than shit; crazier than a shit house rat; crazy shits; day the eagle shits; diddly-shit, doodly-shit; doesn’t know jack-shit; doesn’t know shit from paint; dumb like my shit; dumb shits; eat shit; everything you touch turns to shit; fall in a bucket of shit and come out smelling like a rose; find a place for your shit; find shit; forget shit; get your shit together; give a shit; happier than a pig in shit; have a mountain of shit; in deep shit; in the shit; know one’s shit; like a fly on shit; like a possum eating shit; like stink on shit; like trying to fit ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag; lose shit; lucky shits; money talks and bullshit walks; no shit; quicker than shit through a goose; sell shit; serve shit on a shingle; shit fire and save matches; shit for brains; shit happens; shit or get off the pot; shit out of luck; shit-faced; shitty; shoot the shit; slicker than cat shit on a linoleum floor; slicker than greased owl shit; slow as shit through a tin horn; smoke shit; softer than a sneaker full of shit; sound like shit, look like shit, feel like shit; talks like he has a mouth full of shit; the shit hits the fan; the world goes to shit; throw shit, sling shit, catch shit; up shit creek (without a paddle)
©2012, Anatol Stefanowitsch