Did Donald Trump use the word shithole when referring to African countries in a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy, or did he actually say shithouse? These are the scatological depths to which our political discourse has sunk.
Let’s stipulate that regardless of whether Trump said shithole or shithouse, it does little to change the underlying racist sentiment of disparaging the whole continent of Africa (and Haiti and El Salvador as well, according to some accounts). But just as it’s possible to trace the literary roots of shithole, we can observe how the word shithouse has been put into use over the centuries leading up to this peculiar moment in presidential history.
While shithole dates to the early 17th century, shithouse can be found almost as far back in the historical record, originally with the meaning of an outhouse or lavatory. And from the beginning, it could be used to paint geographic locations in a negative light. In 1659, James Howell published “a letter composed of Italian proverbs” as part of a book of sayings translated from various languages. The letter includes this passage comparing Florence to the nearby cities of Pisa, Livorno (here called Ligorn), and Lucca:
There you shall behold the fair Citty of Florence, so fair, that they say she is fit to be seen onely on Holydayes, whence sprung another saying, That if Florence had a Sea Port, she would make a Hortyard of Pisa, a Counting-house of Ligorn, and a shitt-house of Luca.
It’s unclear why in this scenario Pisa gets to be an orchard (hortyard is an old spelling variant) and Livorno is a counting-house, while poor Lucca is made into a shithouse. Chalk it up to Tuscan trash-talking.