A Brief History Of Bullshit

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A man with bullshit in his head. Representational illustration: Image - Public domain.
Bullshit is one of 20th-century's greatest linguistic inventions that evolved into a major theoretical framework.

Bullshit is now a theoretical framework, a philosophical construct. But it hasn’t lost its relevance as an expletive; it’s considered to be vulgar slang and is used universally by the commoner and the world’s elite. But the history of bullshit and the story of its evolution is quirky, wacky, and weird.

The history of Bullshit starts with TS Eliot. The word bullshit is his contribution to the English language. Between 1910 and 1916, he wrote a poem titled The Triumph of Bullshit in the form of a Ballad. Though the text of the poem does not mention the word Bullshit, in the last one hundred years or so, this “distinctively modern linguistic innovation” has become one of the most commonly used terms in the English language.

The earliest citations for Bullshit are from the British writer Wyndham Lewis and the American essayist E. E. Cummings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Elliot has sent me Bullshit and the Ballad for Big Louise. They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry,” writes Lewis, on 2 February 1915; “When we asked him once what he thought about the war, he replied, ‘I t’ink a lotta bullshit,’ writes Cummings in Enormous Room vii.

Some authors, however, are reluctant to bestow the honour of inventing the word Bullshit entirely to TS Eliot. They argue that the word “bull” has been in use at least from the seventeenth century before it morphed into its modern avatar – bullshit. Read, for instance, what Jim Holt of The New Yorker has to say:

People have been talking bull, denying that they were talking bull, and accusing others of talking bull for ages. “Dumbe Speaker! that’s a Bull,” a character in a seventeenth-century English play says. “It is no Bull, to speak of a common Peace, in the place of War,” a statesman from the same era declares. The word “bull,” used to characterise 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.

Jim Holt’s argument seems valid if one were to consider one of the most popular theories, propounded by the New Zealand-British lexicographer Eric Partridge, on how bullshit gained popularity during World War 1. He tells how Australian troops arriving at the front were astounded at the British commanding officers’ insistence on ‘bull’ – the term for attention to appearances. They ridiculed the British by calling it bullshit – not bull. To prove his argument, Eric cites examples of this usage in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Hence, bullshit morning, that morning on which the COs inspection takes place.

Today, bullshit is used informally, both as a noun and a verb. It is commonly used as a mild profanity – ‘vulgar slang,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary – that indicates nonsense, deceit or falsehood. Yet, it has gained a degree of legitimacy and is used commonly by some of the world’s most eloquent and articulate speakers to express their displeasure – Barak Obama calling Mitt Romney a Bullshitter, for example.

At the same time, it is an aphorism that is easy to understand but difficult to define. It is not articulate but suggestive – a linguistic chameleon loaded with meaning, but the meaning changes with context, form, and intonation. In the recent past, this particular trait of bullshit – of being easy to use and understand, but difficult to define – has attracted the attention of philosophers, psychologists, and scholars. Bullshit has turned out to be a green field for them to study, examine, and empirically investigate its structure, ‘essence,’ and implications for society.

In 1985, Harry Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, launched a “philosophical investigation” and developed a “theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.”

He published an essay titled On Bullshit in the Raritan Quarterly Review journal in 1986. In it, he defines the idea of bullshit, differentiates it with other similar but different concepts such as ‘lying’ and ‘humbug,’ and argues that bullshit, and the bullshitter, present “a more insidious threat” to democratic values. As a prelude to this theory on Bullshit, he writes:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most of us are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being take in by it…We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory…Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked.

Harry’s twenty-five-page essay gained popularity. Nineteen years later – in 2005, his publisher, played around with the font size and margins and published the essay as a sixty-page book with the same title – On Bullshit. The book grabbed the readers’ attention; it appeared on The New York Times Best Seller List for twenty-seven weeks and discussed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Building on the theoretical foundations laid by Harry Frankfurt’s pioneering essay, other scholars interested in the study of moral philosophy and cognitive psychology have developed elaborate theoretical models on Bullshit. In 2002, G.A Cohen, a Marxist political philosopher who held positions at University College London and Oxford University, wrote another essay titled ‘Deeper into Bullshit,’ contesting Harry Frankfurt’s theoretical analysis of Bullshit.

In it, he identifies “two species of bullshit,” analyses Bullshit as “unclarifiable unclarity,” and distinguishes between “Bullshit as Product and Bullshit as Process.” A table which lays down the difference between Frankfurt’s bullshit and Cohen’s bullshit, as postulated by Cohen, is given below:

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G A Cohen’s comparative table which gives the difference between Harry’s bullshit and cohen’s bullshit.

More recently, in 2016, Nathaniel Barr and his team of scholars focused their empirical investigations on “The Reception and Detection Of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” The Ig Nobel Board of Governors awarded them with the Ig Nobel Prize in the field of Peace for their thought-provoking study. Thanks to TS Eliot and Harry Frankfurt, bullshit is now a theoretical, moral, and philosophical framework for scholars across the world. In the recent past, published research on bullshit has increased significantly: Nader N Choker’s “Even Deeper Into ‘Bullshit,” Hans Maes’ “Different Kinds and Aspects of Bullshit,”  Andreas Stokke’s “Bullshitting,” Chris Omotosho’s “Bullshit, lies and the Public domain in Africa,” Eleonora Belfiore’s analysis “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case,” are just a few other examples.

Notwithstanding the inherent gender bias in the word, the idea of Bullshit as a theoretical framework, bizarre as it may seem, is here to stay. More importantly, theories that help us identify bullshit are essential. That’s because bullshit is powerful. In a post-truth world, it works like a charm, turning falsity into truth. Bullshit influences our thoughts, swings votes, and has the potential to destroy our democracies.

Recently, recognising the limits to fact-checking, a scholar came up with the “Bullshit Asymmetry Principle” which postulates that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Given that a lot of mass-produced bullshit is thrown at us through ever-expanding digital networks, we need to pay more attention to bullshit and bullshitters who try to take us for a ride.

TS Eliot may never have imagined that a word he used in the title of his unpublished poem would one day end up being a universal slang and at the same time a much sought after theoretical framework. Going by the popularity of bullshit, a multi-epistemic term he invented, would he be smiling in his grave?

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