The Question Hit the Fan
September 26, 2006 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Where did the phrase "the shit hit the fan" originate from? My googling has revealed one claim that it is from 1930's jazz lingo, although no explanantion is given as to what it meant at the time, and another site gives a story that describes the origin that doesn't seem believable. (the last paragraph here: Does anyone know where the phrase came from? Thanks!
posted by andoatnp to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The OED's first reference to the phrase is "Wait till the major hears that! Then the shit'll hit the fan!" from the 1967 edition of Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (their page reference says Suppl. 1355/2). I don't have a copy handy, but I'd look for an etymology there. The specific usage would seem to imply a (British?) military origin. Of course, the OED can be unreliable on slang and off-color phrases.
posted by RogerB at 2:14 PM on September 26, 2006

You mean you can't figure out what "the shit hit the fan" meant in the 1930s? I'm sure it pretty much painted the same mental picture then as it does now.
posted by Doohickie at 2:22 PM on September 26, 2006

i'd imagine that it just originated from the idea of making a huge mess. What could be a bigger pain in the butt to clean up than that?

How come people on the internet are always so interested in the orgins of random phrases? I don't get it! Am I just out of touch?
posted by ZackTM at 2:28 PM on September 26, 2006

Best answer: Here's what Partridge has to say in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1977):
when shit (generic) (or the shit (specific)) hits the fan : also then the shit'll hit the fan; and the shit hit the fan; and then the shit hits the fan, apparently the predominant US form. Douglas Leechman says that it is 'a c.p. indicative of grave or exciting consequences': Canadian and US: since c. 1930. 'Wait till the major hears that! Then the shit'll hit the fan!' Dr Leechman adds that 'the allusion is to the consequences of throwing this material into an electric fan'. But the original reference, as Norman Franklin in March 1976 reminds me, is to the agricultural muck-spreader.
He doesn't, unfortunately, give us any reason to think his good buddy Norman knew what he was talking about, so take the muck-spreader idea for what it's worth.
posted by languagehat at 6:17 PM on September 26, 2006

If so these are the fans beening refered to.
posted by Mitheral at 6:58 AM on September 27, 2006

I made an amateur effort to figure this out and decided that there is not firm answer. Sorry, but I think we just won't ever know for sure.
posted by gbinal at 8:56 AM on September 27, 2006

The problem with most of these answers is that Partridge is highly, highly unreliable. Cassell's, unfortunately, is very derivative—it relies to heavily on secondary sources. The Hugh Rawson quotation is good—and Hugh does good work—but the may derive there needs to be taken at full value: it's completely unproven.

For what it's worth, the earliest citation in the unpublished citations of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from 1943. I can't look in other dictionaries at the moment as they're all packed in boxes in preparation for a move.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:21 AM on September 28, 2006

« Older Tunafied.   |   Why can't I hear Jimmy Page? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.