Limitations on use of “[quality] as shit”

[Trigger warning: I’m going to write “shit” about a billion more times in this blog post because it is necessary to describe this linguistic observation. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]

So every once in a while I notice something semantic about English that just blows my mind. I was making tea this  morning and thinking about whether or not your could say that “That dress is bespoke as shit”. Why? Because I’m a linguist, but also because someone brought this cartoon to my attention again recently:

So, in the field of semantics sitting around thinking about your intuitions about words is actually pretty solid methodology, so I’m going to do that. (I know, right? Not a single ultrasound or tracheal puncture? What do they do on Saturday nights?) Let’s compare the following sentences:

  1. That dress is bespoke as shit.
  2. His wardrobe is bespoke as shit.
  3. That dress is pink as shit.
  4. His wardrobe is pink as shit.

My intuition is that that two and three are fine, four is… okay but a little weird and that one is downright wrong. And I also feel very strongly that the goodness of a given sentence where some quality of an object is modified by “as shit” is closely tied to whether or not that quality is a continuous scale. (And, no, I’m not going to say “adjective” here. Mainly because you can also say “Her wardrobe is completely made out of sharks as shit.” And, in my universe, at least, “completely made out of sharks” doesn’t really count as an adjective.) Things that are on a continuous scale are like darkness. It can be a little dark or really dark or completely dark; there’s not really any point where you switch from being dark to light, right? And something that’s dark for me, like a starry night, might be light for a bat. “Pink”, and all colors, are continuous scales. (FUN FACT: how many color terms various languages have and why is a really big debate.) But things like “free” (as in costing zero dollars) are more discrete. Something’s either free or it’s not and there’s not really any middle ground.

The other thing you need to take into account is whether or not the thing being described is plural and whether it’s a mass or count noun. Mass nouns are things like “water”, “sand” or “bubblegum”. You can less or more or some of these things, but you can’t count them. “I’ll have three water” just sounds really odd. Count nouns are things like “buckets of water”, “grains of sand” or “pieces of bubblegum”. These are things that have discrete, countable units instead of just a lump of mass. It’s a really useful distinction.

Ok, so how does this gel with my intuitions? And, more importantly, can I describe qualities in such a way that my description has predictive power? (Remember, linguistics is all about building testable models of language use!) I think I can. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the knitty-gritty. I’ve got two separate parts of the sentence that go into whether or not I can use “as shit”: the thing(s) being described, and the quality it has. The thing being described can be either singular or plural, and either mass or count. The quality it has can either be continuous or discrete. Let’s put this in outline form to make the possible different conditions a bit easier to see:

  • Thing being described
    • Is it singular? If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition 1.
      • A count noun? If so, assign condition 2.
    • Is it plural?  If yes, is it:
      • A mass noun? If so, assign condition TRICK QUESTION, because that’s not possible. 😛
      • Is it a count noun? If so, assign condition 3.
  • Qualities: continuous or discrete
    • Is it continuous? If so, assign condition A
    • Is it discrete? If so, assign condition B.

[What’s that, pseudocode? I thought you didn’t do “computer-y code-y math-y things”, Rachael.] Ok, so now we’ve got six possible conditions for a given sentence (1A, 2A, 3A, 1B, 2B and 3B). Which conditions can take “as shit” and why? (Keep in mind, this is just my intuition.

  • 1A: “Water is big  as shit.” = acceptable
  • 2A: “The dog is big as shit.” = acceptable
  • 3A: “The dogs are big as shit.” =  acceptable
  • 1B: “Water is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 2B “The dog is still as shit.” = unacceptable
  • 3B: “The dogs are still as shit.” = acceptable

Okay, so a little of my reasoning. I feel very strong that “as shit” serves to intensify the adjective  and you can’t intensify something that’s binary. The light switch it either on or off; it’s can’t be extremely on or extremely off. So all of the B conditions are bad… except for 3B. What is 3B acceptable? Well, for me what I get the sense that what you’re saying is not that you’re intensifying the qualities of each individual but that you’re talking about the group as whole. And if you add up a bunch of binaries (three still dogs and one moving dog) you can get value somewhere in the middle.

But that’s just a really informal little model based on my intuitions and I feel like they’re getting screwed up because I’ve spent way too much time thinking  about this. And now the tea that I was making is getting cold as shit, so I might as well go drink it.

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2 responses

  1. Alternative native speaker judgement alert! “That dress is bespoke as shit” is fine for me. “Her wardrobe is completely made out of sharks as shit” does not work at all. What English are you from?

    • I have definitely been told more than once that my grammaticality judgments are a little odd. I don’t have island effects either; “Who do you believe that saw John?” is perfectly fine for me.

      I think it might partly be the result of a linguistically checkered past. I’ve spent about 40% of my life in the American South, about 36% in the American West and have had significant exposure (over a year) with the Eastern Midlands dialectal area (it’s around DC). The real kicker, though, is that I’ve also spent 20% of my life in Hong Kong, and at a very linguistically-malleable age. So I’ve got traces of Tagalog, Mandarin and Cantonese English L2 speakers as well as British, Australian and New Zealand English.

      It doesn’t help that I study linguistics either. Since I started studying phonetics, I’ve actually unmerged ‘caught’ and ‘cot’.

      Moral of the story: These judgments only really hold for me, and my “dialectal region” tends to look more like an idiolect.

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