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Etymology/definition of "shit-eating grin?"
February 8, 2011 9:15 PM   Subscribe

What does the phrase "shit-eating grin" mean? And what is its etymology? (Please no random guesses on the latter question, not looking for 'folk etymology')
posted by jcruelty to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
In case you haven't checked yet, the earliest (real) hits in Google books are in the fifties.
posted by XMLicious at 9:30 PM on February 8, 2011


Well, here's the definition, as a subcategory of "shit-eater" with coinage dates but not attributions or etymology.

Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. by John Ayto and John Simpson. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. subscription-based link

shit-eater noun coarse orig US
1. A contemptible or despicable person. 1937–.

2. A person or animal which eats faeces. 1968–. Hence shit-eating, adjective

1. shit-eating grin: (a) a broad grin expressing uncontrollable delight or (self-)satisfaction, esp. at having got away with something outrageous or improper. 1957–. (b) an ingratiating, embarrassed, or uncomfortable expression, esp. as exhibited by someone undergoing a humiliating experience; a forced smile. 1990–.

2. Contemptible, despicable. 1960–.

3. Of or engaging in the eating of faeces. 1970–.
posted by gingerest at 9:30 PM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


As with many idioms, I had to ask about this once. Most answers I received made emphasis of the quality of smugness exhibited by the described person's smile. I reckon the etymology is simple enough - displaying one's delight in doing something contemptible or noxious to others.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:03 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Providing a data point: Here in rural Central Kansas it's a very common expression and it's always understood to mean [quoting from gingerest's answer] a broad grin expressing uncontrollable delight or (self-)satisfaction, esp. at having got away with something outrageous or improper, with a definite emphasis on the "having got away with something." Very similar to the cat that ate the canary.
posted by amyms at 10:04 PM on February 8, 2011


gingerest: "shit-eater noun coarse orig US"

A bit off-topic, but I really like how "shit-eater" described a loathsome person 29+ years prior to being used to describe an animal/person that (allegedly) ate shit. I guess I would've thought that it'd be the other way around.
posted by autoclavicle at 12:31 AM on February 9, 2011


In the mid 90s in Maine a high school chemistry professor said it about me after I'd inadvertently left the palm of my hand over a beaker of concentrated ammonia while talking with a girl I liked. When we finished I moved my hand and the now super concentrated fumes wafted straight up into my nose, which would have sucked but I had a bad cold at the time and it was the first time in a week or two that I could breath through my nose.

He hadn't seen any of that and just saw the "broad grin expressing uncontrollable delight ... at having got away with something ... improper." Which is pretty much the description of my childhood and why the example above was just one of the many times I had it applied to me, all of which perfectly conveyed that particular definition. ;-)
posted by jwells at 5:45 AM on February 9, 2011


I've always had an understanding more in line the b) definition, which has caused me quite a bit of confusion over the years.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:12 AM on February 9, 2011


[folks, we're drifting into folk etymologies here...]
posted by jessamyn at 8:47 AM on February 9, 2011


For the definition part:

Supremely self-satisfied smile. The kind you want to remove with a punch.

I think that second part is extremely important. Shit-eating grins should also engender rancor from those who have to witness it.

Derek Jeter is pretty-much the king of the shit-eating grin.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the "shit-eating" part is the least important. I'm just guessing, but I bet that it's only there to express derision about the grinning person. This guy is grinning, and because the reason for the grin is contemptible, he's a shit-eater.
posted by Willie0248 at 10:01 AM on February 9, 2011


I was just wondering about this last week, and am wondering - can I append a side question? Specifically, did 'cheese-eating grin' just arise as the 'aw, shoot' censored version of 'shit-eating', or do they have separate roots?
posted by FatherDagon at 10:11 AM on February 9, 2011


A picture is worth a thousand words....
posted by Lynsey at 10:48 AM on February 9, 2011


I think this is one of those expressions for which there is no definitive information about its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary simply gives the etymology "< shit n. and adj. + eating adj." The first historical example in the OED is:
1957    L. Giovannitti Prisoners of Combine D 37   Okay, what's the shit-eating grin for?

posted by Orinda at 12:10 PM on February 9, 2011


Lynsey, I have to say that the woman in that picture (is it you? or someone you know?) looks genuinely pleased and happy to be out on the water, and not at all smug and self-satisfied.

Rather, I think this probably now stands for all time as the definitive illustration of the shit-eating grin.
posted by tully_monster at 12:31 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


The OED gives two definitions: the first is the grin of soembody who got away with something, and so feels smug; the second is the grin of a person who has been humiliated (presumably, forced to 'eat shit' or even 'eat their own shit').

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈʃɪtˌiːtɪŋ/ , U.S. /ˈʃɪtˌidɪŋ/

Etymology: shit n. and adj.+ eating adj. coarse slang (orig. U.S.).

I. Special uses.

1. shit-eating grin n. (occas. shit-eating smile)

a. A broad grin expressing uncontrollable delight or (self-)satisfaction, esp. characterized by awareness of having got away with something normally considered outrageous or improper; (also) a consciously disarming, self-deprecating, slightly cheeky grin, often used to deflect censure or disapproval.

1957 L. Giovannitti Prisoners of Combine D 37 Okay, what's the shit-eating grin for?

1958 Stack A Lee (typescript, Kinsey Inst.) 1 Another bitch looked at Stack with a shit eating smile And said, dont look like you've had any for quite awhile.

1967 N. Mailer Why are we in Vietnam? vii. 119 ‘I think this bear went from massive shock,’ said Big Luke, hardly able to hold back a massive shocker of a shit-eating grin.

1977 M. Torres in R. P. Rettig et al. Manny iii. 100/2 In a little while he looks up and there's this stud leaning up against the bars with a shit-eating grin on his face.

1988 J. McInerney Story of my Life vi. 101 He's wearing his extraspecial shit-eating grin, the one that he gets after a blow job.

2000 Vanity Fair May 223/3 There is a certain presence to him, a way of smiling that...his mother...jokingly calls his ‘shit-eating grin’.

b. An ingratiating, embarrassed, or uncomfortable expression, esp. as exhibited by someone undergoing a humiliating experience; a forced smile.

1990 C. Hitchens in Nation 24 Dec. 794/2 Bush is there, flanked by his First Lady and by Senators Dole and Mitchell and Congressmen Foley and Michel, the last four of whom are wearing what used to be called shit-eating grins. Thus invested with the holy right to employ the word ‘bipartisan’, [etc.].

1995 Harper's Mag. Nov. 51/2 To describe the expression on Dole's face at this moment as a ‘shit-eating grin’ would be to imply that Dole is grinning; he is not. He is eating shit. And, as always, his true feelings show through: ‘I'm not perfect.’ He glares. ‘Maybe everybody here is.’

1997 Village Voice (N.Y.) (Nexis) 2 Sept., By Saturday the crowds at the 70th had dwindled into a motley assortment: T-shirted police community relations personnel standing around with shit-eating grins; groups of Hasidic Jews and Russian emigres from local neighborhoods wandering curiously along the police barricades.

posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:26 PM on February 9, 2011


Unless the dates are wrong (and they often are, but it appears to me to check out in a cursory investigation, though someone in a library, or who possesses innate librarian superpowers, could do better) Google Books appears to be outsmarting the OED on the first historical occurrence in print, which it gives as the tenth issue of the magazine New World Writing^ in 1956, showing the following fragment from page 16:
"You've got the most shit-eating grin I ever saw," he said. Sgt Krita, too, looked at the mail clerk, then made a leering imitation of...
It also has The prisoners of Combine D in the search results.
posted by XMLicious at 3:32 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I read the dog-story, I thought, "That's a perfect(!) description of a shit-eating grin."

Now, I missed whatever the ruckus was about Folk Etymologies that caused its deletion, so it's entirely possible that I missed something on my skim through. But: During my informal field research into this among people familiar with the term "shit-eating grin" (for the sake of Science! and Metafilter), I told them (independently) that I was reading a discussion on the meaning & etymology of "shit-eating grin", and when I mentioned that someone had offered as an example a dog that had just just eaten shit, their immediate and enthusiastic(*) (*well, there was beer, wine, and music around) response was "That's perfect"!
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 3:59 PM on February 12, 2011


This will vary by region and circumstance, but I think many of the assessments above are over-valuing:
esp. characterized by awareness of having got away with something normally considered outrageous or improper
The "outrageous or improper" factor will have huge variance by region and circumstance (ranging from zero to scold-worthy). While the "got away with something" is frequently/strongly linked with a "shit-eating grin", it's not a requirement -- it's more an inference, or an accusation on the part of the observer. For example, merely having supreme good fortune (especially if unexpected) will often generate a shit-eating grin.

The major (and minimum) requirement is that it's a big uncontrollable smile; a big stupid grin that won't go away, pretty much no matter what. Some examples: The kind that stoners sometimes have when stoned [primary usage, according to many]; the kind a kid might have if they were privy to something they shouldn't be, or if they thought they had gotten away with the neatest trick ever; or a dog had rolled in the nastiest, smelliest shit imaginable, and is happy!happy!happy!; the kind a gossip-monger has when they have new and secret information they're dying to spill; the kind one might have after first sex with someone (assuming it was the Greatest Romp Ever type, and not the awkward type that mefites sometime mention).

Two of those examples apply to the citations mentioned:

(1) 1956: tenth issue of the magazine New World Writing. It's from the story "The Suicides of Private Greaves", by James Moffett, (now most easily found in Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories)
He noticed the mail clerk leaning over the half-door trying to see Greaves around the corner of the wall. You've got the most shit-eating grin I ever saw," he said. Sgt Krita, too, looked at the mail clerk, then made a leering imitation of his gawking, grinning curiosity. "You're nothing but an overgrown punk yourself." Krita said to him
Note that the mail clerk hasn't really gotten away with anything. This is essentially like the example of a school kid gawking at another kid in trouble. (Although there is an element of "getting away with something", in that the gawking kid isn't supposed to be privy to these events). Also, the kid mail clerk's smile is involuntary.

(2) 1957: Len Giovannitti Prisoners of Combine D
He Loved rumors, good or bad, and spent his days living each
new one he heard or could dream up.

'Okay, what's with the shit-eating grin for? What's up Now? Storch
asked, winking at Zukerman.
Rawlings kept the grin. "You mean you ain't heard?"
"No, we ain't heard, so tell us before you choke," Storch said.
Note, again, that Rawlings hasn't technically "gotten away" with anything. He is merely extremely pleased with himself -- he's a gossip-monger, and he has a fresh, juicy piece of gossip to share. To the staid O.E.D. this may be "outrageous or improper", but not for a US POW in WWII. (Occasionally the O.E.D. seems to have feet-of-clay wrt American English)
posted by Tuesday After Lunch at 1:19 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


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