What more can be said about Donald Trump’s reported remark about “shithole countries”? Media outlets have by and large decided it was newsworthy enough to report without censoring, so we’ve been seeing and hearing the word shithole everywhere. More important than the word itself, of course, is the hateful sentiment behind it, as many commentators have pointed out.
Trump’s use of the word was in the service of a disparaging slur on countries, including Haiti and African nations, from which he thinks the U.S. should be limiting immigration. (Despite his vague protestations on Twitter, the White House pointedly did not deny that he dropped the S-bomb in front of a room full of lawmakers.) But shithole doesn’t have to be used in such a vile way. In fact, despite its scatological origins, the word has something of a literary pedigree, which is worth appreciating as an antidote to the enervating news cycle.
The very first known use of shithole in English print literature appears in a remarkable manuscript held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The manuscript, titled Liber Lilliati, contains bawdy verse written by the cathedral musician John Lilliat some time before his death in 1629. The verse is worth reading in full (which we can do thanks to an annotated edition of Liber Lilliati published by the University of Delaware Press in 1985):
Ten tuff Turds did I tosse in thi teeth that I troinst from my tuch hole,
Nine nickinge nockes did I nicke on thi nose that I neisde from my narshole:
Fiue flushing fartes did I flap in thi face that I flunge from my fisthole,
Six shitten shotes did I shoote in thy mowth that I shot from my shithole.
When the news of Trump’s “shithole” comment broke, some scholarly types consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to learn more about the word’s history and found Lilliat’s verse there as the first citation, in the earliest meaning of shithole defined as “the rectum or anus.” Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist at the University of West Florida, tweeted out the verse and generated some learned discussion about Elizabethan English. Rebecca L. Fall, a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and a strategic communications manager at The Public Theater, even supplied a photo of the actual manuscript page with the “Ten tuff Turds” verse. As Killgrove said on Twitter (accompanied by the “pile of poo” and “hole” emojis), “Who knew etymology would be so cathartic today?”
It's "nesed," or "smelled"! I randomly came across this poem in Bodleian MS Rawl. poet. 148 years ago and have been obsessed with it ever since!!! Here is an image of the ms! pic.twitter.com/8Tr3dHgyaU— Rebecca L. Fall (@Becky_Fall) January 12, 2018
There’s a significant gap in the historical record for shithole after the Lilliat verse, however. I’m not aware of any other recorded use of the word before 1902, when John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley included it in their magnum opus, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, with shithole defined simply as “the rectum.” In the early 20th century, however, shithole broke out into other meanings, such as “a toilet or latrine” (i.e., a place to shit), or “a wretched location” (i.e., a shitty place). And among authors who reveled in coarse language, shithole often hit the spot.