Note: This post is PG-13 due to mild Pauline profanity.*
This is, of course, a word you’re not supposed to say on live TV or in front of the children, but it’s spiking in use these days for the same reason that any word does: because of its precision and thus its necessity. We are seeing something in our politics, exemplified in the juvenile free-for-all of this week’s Republican presidential primary debate, and we need to identify it. We need to classify what it is we’re seeing and to articulate that to ourselves and to others so that we can calibrate an appropriate response.
The English language provides a multitude of potential adjectives to classify this moment in Republican politics, many of which, unfortunately, draw implicit or explicit analogies to mental illness. Using those words pejoratively can be both rude and harmful — stigmatizing people who have mental illness. But in addition to being offensive, they’re unsatisfying because they’re inaccurate and imprecise. The whatever-we-call-it behavior we’re actually seeing in Republican primary politics isn’t actually analogous to the behavior of people with mental illness. The former is shameful, the latter is not and should not be shamed by association.** So those words won’t do here. Even if using a word like “insane” weren’t hurtful, the word still wouldn’t apply because this behavior is something other than that.
Other, more detached, attempts to say that same sort of thing won’t really do either. Words like “irrational” may be accurate up to a point, but they seem incomplete. So we reach for more colorful terms that might do a better job of containing the multivaried aspects of what we’re watching. The irrationality, yes, but also the coarseness of it, the spectacle of it, the elements of rage and of misapprehension (in both senses), the realization that it’s out of control and that no one knows how to rein it back in.
And so thousands of observers flung adjectives in the direction of this thing until, finally, someone said “batshit” and the aptness and clarity of that term rang like a bell. (Sen. Graham was far from the first to use the term, but his prominence as a senator helped spread its use among the punditocracy and the chattering classes.)
The term works here, I think, partly because a coarse word is necessary to capture a coarse and coarsening phenomenon. Trumpism — and the attempts of Cruz, Rubio, et. al. to out-Trump Trump — is partly a willingness to say repugnant things out loud that manners, mores, morals, and decency previously prevented anyone from saying in such contexts. A word that refers to something repugnant, and that is itself something we’re not supposed to say, conveys that better than a more polite term could.
The word articulates the mood and the moment so perfectly that it seems to have separated observers and commenters into two camps: Those now applying the term to identify what we’re seeing, and those scrupulously and uncomfortably avoiding doing so.
And but so anyway, where did this lovely-in-its-unloveliness idiom come from? I would’ve guessed that it originated with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. It just sounds like something he would have written. But the first usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from a more infamous source. It cites Lt. William Calley, the American soldier who oversaw a massacre of civilians in My Lai, Vietnam, who spoke of soldiers “going batshit.” The OED says this was military slang dating back to the 1950s, a variant of the earlier “apeshit,” which may derive from the feces-flinging behavior of some stressed captive primates.
I’m leaning here on “Lexie Kahn,” the awesomely nicknamed “word snoop” exploring the etymology of “batshit” in this 2013 blog post. See also this post at English Language & Usage, which has the full citation from the OED, along with additional speculation about the evolution of this term. The discussion there speculates that batshit likely incorporates the connotations of “batty” and “bats in the belfry.”
Since batshit comes from military slang, I think it may also allude to the old saying about mushrooms which, like low-ranking soldiers, are “kept in the dark and fed shit.” But that’s just a guess, and I’m not sure if that joke actually predates the adoption of “batshit” in the 1950s.
What I was surprised to learn, delving into this etymology, is that our distinctions of shades of meaning for various animal prefixes — bull-, bat-, ape-, etc. — are a fairly recent development. The use of shit in the Pauline sense — meaning something filthy and worthless — goes way, way back, and it wasn’t unusual for speakers to add some animal prefix for a bit of flair, yet we hadn’t yet settled on a taxonomy of various meanings for those various things. Thus, for example, although the 19th century had a rich vocabulary for P.T. Barnum’s balderdash, hornswoggle, hogwash and hokum, we hadn’t yet settled on bullshit as specifically referring to that kind of malarkey. That came later.
We can find early uses of batshit to mean what we would now refer to as bullshit, but that usage didn’t last because language doesn’t require two words for the same thing. And so now the two terms have clearly distinct meanings. We might describe that distinction by saying that someone who believes and embraces too much bullshit will consequently go batshit, and that having to deal with such a person will so tax one’s patience that one may be tempted to go apeshit in response. Oddly, both of these folks — the one who has gone batshit and the one who has gone apeshit in response — can be said to have lost their shit. And yet, should they both calm down and regain their bearings, neither will be said to have thereby found their shit.
The actual origins of this term and its usage may be less significant than its retroactive etymology. Etymology — the root meaning and original meaning of words — tends to get carried along in the connotations of those words, even after those root meanings and origins have fallen away from its later denotation. But sometimes the arrow points in the other direction and usage creates a new root-meaning projected back onto the word, and that retroactive origin comes to shape its connotations.
Think, for example, of how flounder has come to be used as a verb. This originated as a corruption of the verb founder, which was usually applied to ships disabled and sinking on a rock or a reef, but also, by extension and analogy, could be applied to anything or anyone in a similar sinking state. The invention of the airplane cut us off from a lot of maritime language and now that use of the verb founder is mainly only found in old books. Today, we flounder instead of founder and the implicit analogy is no longer a comparison to a ship sinking on a reef but to a fish out of water, flailing and flopping and gasping in its death throes.
I suspect that, similarly, the connotations of batshit derive more from its retroactive etymology than its technical origin. It suggests, I think, something rank and foul-smelling that has been festering at the bottom of a cave. (There’s also the matter of bat- as a prefix, which carries a whole other set of literary allusions for many of us — a touch of Gotham’s corruption and criminality, and maybe just a hint of Arkham.)
Why did I just spend 1,500-some words discussing the etymology and connotations of a crude bit of American slang? Because right now that seems to be a welcome distraction from thinking about the state of American politics which have gotten downright … well, you know.
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* Growing up attending a fundamentalist Christian school and church youth group, we considered this to be rather severe profanity. We did not cuss, but we knew some of the words and assigned them all a hierarchy of severity. In ascending order of wickedness: the h-word, the d-word, the s-word, the f-word. At Timothy Christian School, this was quantifiable, as either of those first two would get you a demerit, but either of the latter two would get you four demerits. In youth group, the use of the h- or d-word would prompt only a stern recitation of Philippians 4:8, but the use of those more severe words prompted genuine dismay — evidence of rebellion and backsliding and grave concerns for the state of one’s soul that would need to be corrected at the next altar-call opportunity to re-dedicate one’s life to Christ.
While we often piously revisited Philippians 4:8 as an anti-swearing prooftext, no one ever made the connection between that verse and Philippians 3:8, which our King James Bibles cleans up as “I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.”
** This is something that I regret not learning sooner, and something I still am trying to learn to handle better. I want to avoid using language that could be interpreted as disparaging or shaming people with mental illnesses and so I have learned not to use the word “insane” as an insult. The trickier thing — and the part where I still need practice and help — has to do with the whole universe of non-medical, generic pejoratives that are also sometimes applied pejoratively against those with mental illnesses. This is tricky because it’s so pervasive. Huge chunks and regions of our language and idiom for criticizing ideas, ideologies and arguments draws on or alludes to notions of “madness” (and vice versa).
So I’ve come to rely on more cartoonish, goofier words like “gonzo” or “bonkers,” hoping that such terms are too far removed from any clinical or medical application to be mistaken for a reference to the realm of mental illness. They also tend to be newer words — and thus words that don’t carry the baggage of an earlier era’s ignorance. I hope that works — that it allows the effect of my words to match my intent. If it’s not working, please let me know and I’ll try to keep learning.