Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

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.

Not long after, in 1665, the word shithouse showed up in court documents across the Atlantic in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A Boston court ruled that John Porter Junior, a yeoman from Salem, had been “instigated by the divill” to rebel against his pious parents. He reportedly called his father “theife, lyar, & simple ape, shittabed,” and he called his mother “Gammar Shithouse,” among other “abusive names.” (Gammar or gammer was a name for an old woman.) So it turns out that people as well as places could be tarred with shithouse from early-on.

For a few centuries, shithouse was typically found only in the lowest of low literature. Green’s Dictionary of Slang records early 19th-century examples from a “bugger’s alphabet” (“S is the shithouse all full to the brim”) and the bawdy song “Stinking Breath” (“Your breath stinks just like any shithouse”). And of course it adorned the walls of lavatories in graffiti form. In 1928, the language scholar Allen Walker Read collected this pithy example from a campground in Yellowstone National Park: “This Shithouse stinks like shit / Because it is so shitty.”

But as with shithole, shithouse began making inroads into more literary writing in the early 20th century. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the protagonist Leopold Bloom is ridiculed as being “cute as a shithouse rat.” More privately, Dylan Thomas wrote to a friend in a 1938 letter about his modest accommodations: “There is an earth lavatory and it smells like a shit-house.”

Henry Miller, a noted transgressor of linguistic taboos, used shithouse in a literal way in his controversial first novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934), describing a failed sexual encounter in a lavatory stall: “We’re dancing there in the shithouse.” Later, in his 1949 novel Sexus, Miller got more metaphorical in a diatribe deriding “Mr. and Mrs. Megalopolitan,” stand-ins for Americans in general. “Maybe the realest moments you know are when you sit alone in the toilet and make caca … You leave the toilet and you step into the big shithouse. Whatever you touch is shitty.”

Shithouse also came to be used as an adjective meaning “disgusting” or “contemptible.” In this regard, it’s no different from shithole, so it doesn’t substantively matter whether Trump said “shithole countries” or “shithouse countries.” This usage, too, has some literary forerunners, at least in epistolary form. In a 1960 letter to the beat poet Philip Whalen, Jack Kerouac complained about requests for him to do readings: “Whether it’s Oxford or shithouse college why should I get away from my wine moon chair of poesy?” And Charles Bukowski, in a letter from 1966, presented “the flunky fired from his shithouse job” as a vignette from everyday life.

Over the years, shithouse has rarely been used in a complimentary way—except for the memorable simile “built like a brick shithouse,” for a muscular man or well-built woman. Ernest Hemingway provides one early example referring to a man in a 1928 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jack Conroy’s proletarian novel of 1933, The Disinherited, describes a woman’s figure with a slightly sanitized version of the expression: “Wilma’s a baby doll, built like a brick outhouse.” (The classic Commodores song “Brick House” supplies another euphemistic variation on the theme.)

Despite the literary pedigree of shithouse, more pertinent to Trump’s purported use of the word is its history as a political insult. In 1991, the then-governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer, had some unkind words for the state’s Eastern Shore, which had voted against him in the last election. He was overheard joking to a legislator from the region, “How’s that shithouse of an Eastern Shore?” As it happens, Schaefer was a big fan of pro wrestling, and in 1989 he attended WrestleMania in Atlantic City as a guest of none other than Donald Trump.

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