This question is THE $hit.
November 15, 2007 6:59 AM   Subscribe

The $hit... We know that 'the' makes it positive, but why? What is the origin 'the $hit' as a positive thing?

I'm currently a Teachers Assistant for a course at the University of Michigan. We were talking about the mid semester reviews that the students do on each teacher. I got the following comment 'Quazie is the shit'. I mentioned this in our weekly TA meeting with the teacher and she proceeded to ask if anyone got any positive feedback, she didn't realize that the addition of 'the' made shit a positive thing.

This led me to wonder, who determined/where did it come from/why does 'The' make 'Shit' positive.
posted by Quazie to Writing & Language (26 answers total)
Cassell's Dictionary of Slang has 4 different entries, but the one that seems to apply best is

shit, the [1980s+] (origin US Campus): An important person (in their own opinion).
posted by iconomy at 7:10 AM on November 15, 2007

it's not the "the" that makes it positive, it's the "$hit" that makes it current. There's a long line of phrases, probably originating in the idea of "it's the ideal," or "it's the pinnacle" which metaphorically link the object of the phrase to something that connotes the height of quality or excellence, and later, when the the structure becomes widely understood, you get phrases like "it's the..."

cat's pajamas
cat's meow
cat's whiskers (not sure why all the cats)
creme de la creme
bee's knees
etc. etc.

All that just got shortened to "the $hit." I guess at this point it's more about the general coarsening of language.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:16 AM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

My guess/feeling is this:

"Shit" also means, generally "stuff" ("I need some of that shit that gets paint off shit"), or more specifically, "drugs" ("We smoked some shit before school and shit").

The really best drugs to smoke, or really primo varnish, is *the* shit- the number-one top choice. This is *the* shit you want to be smoking this weekend, and this is *the* shit you want to get that paint off without damaging the fine engraving on the chair.

I have a strong gut feeling that this is where the expression comes from, but I know that strong gut feelings about etymologies are often (a) not shared by others and (b) wrong.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:16 AM on November 15, 2007

I agree with ManInSuit.

My gut feelings is that at some point it when from "the best shit" to just "the shit."
posted by milarepa at 7:20 AM on November 15, 2007

Oy, should be: My gut feeling is that at some point it went from...

God, quitting coffee is hard.
posted by milarepa at 7:23 AM on November 15, 2007

strong gut feelings about etymologies are often (a) not shared by others and (b) wrong.

Yeah, they're pretty much useless. Unfortunately, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang hasn't gotten to S yet, but you could try sending them (Oxford and/or Lightner) an e-mail of inquiry. You could also post a query at; there are a lot of knowledgeable people there.
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on November 15, 2007

"Quazie is shit." Negative. Quazie is worse than worthless. Quazie is actual excrement.
"Quazie is the shit." Positive. Quazie is great.

Interesting, and (with due respect to SSF) I agree that it is the addition of "The" that makes it positive. Shit by itself is rarely good.

I like ManInSuit's take but I might add that "The Shit", in addition to being just good, is also sort of along the lines of the boss. There is a sense, to my ears, in "The Shit" of demanding respect. So, shit is no good, but THE shit is so singularly bad that it stands out from all other shit. It's THE shit.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:26 AM on November 15, 2007

languagehat - no guesses?

And it's probably obvious, but I'm totally guessing up there, no sourcing or citation is pending.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:34 AM on November 15, 2007

Something I find interesting about this, is that "that's shit" is negative, "that's the shit" is positive, and "that's the shits" is negative again.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2007

Fears of folk-etymology aside...

As I think about it, I wonder if the sense of superlative is trickily hiding itself in the word "the", not in the word "shit".

According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of "the" is: "a function word to designate one of a class as the best, most typical, best known, or most worth singling out "

Shit has some specific meanings, but also has a really general meaning of "stuff". ("We listened to some great shit from a band from Atlanta.").

So... one meaning of the phrase "the shit" is "the stuff that is best or most worth singling out". That's not really even a new idiom- just using pre-existing meanings of the words in a combination you hadn't thought of.

posted by ManInSuit at 7:48 AM on November 15, 2007

whoops - definition - link was broken.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:51 AM on November 15, 2007

(Still I can’t help thinking that there a figurative use of "shit" here as meaning drugs. That saying “Quazie is the shit” means “Quazie is (like) a really good bag of pot”. But I can't really make any case for that. Just a hunch...)

Also jacquilynne - I always assume that “the shits” in that meaning came from uses like “I can’t eat cheese - if I do, I get the shits for a whole day”. Saying something is “the shits” is saying it’s like contracting diarrhea.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:56 AM on November 15, 2007

languagehat - no guesses?

Guesses are pointless; sitting around trading guesses is great in a freshman bull session (do they still have those?), but not at AskMe. Someone somewhere has done research on this, and they would be worth listening to; you and me, not so much. Really, language and its history are much more complicated and interesting and unpredictable than most people imagine.
posted by languagehat at 8:29 AM on November 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

ManInSuit, that figurative drug reference might be there for some folks, but I don't think it's generally pervasive—I've heard it used by too many people in too many contexts for that to really ring true.

The generalization from "foo is good shit" (which could refer to drugs, sure, or to music, or to food, or to any old thing) seems like the most sensible vector, but it's probably going to be damned difficult if not impossible to actually pin down the evolution. Listen to languagehat—speculation is fun, but trying to be sure is often a fool's errand, and presuming to be sure because it Sounds Good is just plain silly.

But as a couple folks have said, it's very much not the "the" that makes it positive; that's getting it backwards. It happens, for whatever reason, that the phrase "the shit" has a positive connotation and that "shit" has some negative connotations, and the definite article isn't the responsible part.

Consider also "the shit" = "the front line", "dangerous combat". Except perhaps in the sense of macho I-was-there or I-can-take-it bluster, that's definitely a negative sense.

Consider "good shit", "check this shit out", "holy shit". Positive connotations (among others), no "the"; no article at all except for the middle one.

It'd be a lot easier to catalogue the existing phrases using "shit", and their sets of connotations, than it'd be to meaningfully and accurately establish how those phrases relate to each other, if at all, etymologically.
posted by cortex at 8:38 AM on November 15, 2007

Actually, the "the" as a signal of positive worth may not work as well as some of you all think.

For example, I've heard and used the phrases: "That is some good shit." or "This shit is off the chain" or "I've got some hot shit with me tonight." or "He's thinks he's hot shit."

Of course, the use of "shit" in all of those examples is positive even though there is no "the" to accompany it.
posted by oddman at 8:43 AM on November 15, 2007

Irony is cool. It bonds the young and annoys the tribal elders.
"Wicked" is one of the current faves.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:59 AM on November 15, 2007

It's all context, and intonation if it's spoken. "Well, isn't that the shit" can convey a very negative sentiment, or a positive one.
posted by yohko at 9:33 AM on November 15, 2007

Well, I for one, am all about the guessing. It's fun!

My take is that it's really others have said upthread, giving something a designation or title ("Mr.", "the", etc.) separates it from the rest, which elevates its status (even if the noun in question is being made a bad example of—saying something is "the pits" is saying it's the best of the worst).
posted by iamkimiam at 9:33 AM on November 15, 2007

I'm not persuaded by the the the makes it good crowd, but I don't find oddman's argument convincing either. Shit in each of those examples just means 'stuff'--each of them has a positive modifier 'good', 'off the chain', 'hot' that makes the generic shit good.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:35 AM on November 15, 2007

For those who don't quite get the "the" idea:

Think about "This is the life".

(versus "this is life" or "this is a life").
posted by ManInSuit at 9:46 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's "shit" as in "stuff" and "the" as in "He's not just a gangster, he's the gangster."

So, to me it's the dirty version of "Ahhh, that's the stuff."
posted by so_necessary at 9:50 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

"The good shit" comes from drug slang. While most people might not be using it in that context anymore does not detract from its etymology. "Rock and roll" was originally a euphemism for sex, after all.
posted by rhizome at 9:58 AM on November 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

This whole thread is for shit.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:47 AM on January 10, 2008

In Chilean Spanish, 'la cagada' (lit. 'the crap') is also positive, whereas 'una mierda' ('a shit') is very much not.
posted by signal at 4:18 PM on January 10, 2008

Oh, and it's also the 'la', because, for instance, 'una cagada' is negative.
posted by signal at 4:20 PM on January 10, 2008

Forget "it's the shit"

the new hotness is "it's the ish"
posted by afu at 8:20 PM on January 10, 2008

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