A few weeks ago, I posted some discussion of vulgar language on my site. I included some brief, and inconclusive, comments about Paul’s use of skubalon in Philippians 3:8. Classicist Matt Colvin examined and analyzed the use of the word in Greek literature, and concluded that “the word would definitely not have been considered vulgar in the way English ‘sh*t’ is today.” Matt gave permission for me to quote him, so here’s the full analysis (all from Matt):
It is, in fact, most common in the literature of Greek medicine: Galen (4 times), Soranus’ works on gynecology (11 times), Dioscorides Pedanius’ De Materia Medica (once), Marcellinus’ De Pulsibus (once), Erisistratus (once), Paulus (6 times), Aetius’ Iatrica (23 times), etc. In fact, of the 211 occurrences of the word in Greek literature, nearly half (98) are in medical literature. Most of the medical instances are quite tedious discussions of the digestive tract.
The word is not found in comedy, mime, or other genres where one would expect vulgarity. Achilles Tatius, the semi-pornographic author of Leucippe and Clitophon, does use the word, but only in recounting a legend about the origin of the luxurious purple dye derived from the murex snail (Leucippe and Clitophon, 2.11.5):
“A fisherman caught this fish [i.e. a murex snail]. And he was hoping to eat it, but when he saw the roughness of its shell, he abused it verbally [eloidorei] and threw it back as the skubalon of the sea.” So the word here means “worthless item,” or “refuse.”It does not have exclusive reference to fecal matter, but can mean “leavings from a table”. It is used by one medical writer, Oribasius, to mean “worthless” in opposition to “useful” or “beneficial” (chresimon): “Fevers that arise in shady and wooded areas have more of a worthless [sc. character] than the beneficial.” (Collectiones medicae I.2.11) Awkward translation, I know, but that’s what it says.
The Etymologicum Gudianum gives a rather fanciful derivation for the word:
“Skubalon: that which is given forth from the bowels, or dung(kopros), as it were something thrown to dogs (kusibalon), or thrown out. A kusibalon is what is thrown to dogs (to tois kusi ballomenon), or given to them.”
The Suda and the Etymologicum Magnum repeat this etymology.
The Greeks were working with an understanding grounded on a daily life rather different from ours. In their experience, waste was eliminated by shoveling it, rather than flushing – even ancient toilets eventually had to be shoveled out. There was thus no practical difference between leftover food and feces: both ended up in the compost pile. And of course, in an agrarian society, “sh*t” is far less likely to offend than in a squeaky-clean, shiny white modern one. When the local farrier came to trim the hooves of our Jersey cow two months ago, I apologized that I hadn’t quite mucked out the stall well enough. His reply: “Ah, it’s no problem. Just good clean manure.”