Bullshit (also bullcrap) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism BS. In British English, ‘bollocks’ is a comparable expletive, although bullshit is commonly used in British English. It is a slang profanity term meaning either (literally) bovine excrement or, more commonly, ‘nonsense,’ especially in a rebuking response to communication or actions viewed as deceiving, misleading, disingenuous, or false. As with many expletives, the term can be used as an interjection or as many other parts of speech, and can carry a wide variety of meanings.

It can be used either as a noun or as a verb. While the word is generally used in a deprecating sense, it may imply a measure of respect for language skills, or frivolity, among various other benign usages. In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt, among others, analyzed the concept of bullshit as related to but distinct from lying. Outside of the philosophical and discursive studies, the everyday phrase bullshit conveys a measure of dissatisfaction with something or someone, but does not generally describe any role of truth in the matter.

‘Bull,’ meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century, while the term ‘bullshit’ has been used as early as 1915 in American slang, and came into popular usage only during World War II. The word ‘bull’ itself may have derived from the Old French ‘boul’ (‘fraud, deceit’). The term ‘horseshit’ is a near synonym. Worthy of note is the South African English equivalent ‘bull dust.’ Few corresponding terms exist in other languages, with the significant exception of German ‘bockmist,’ literally ‘billy-goat shit.’

The earliest attestation mentioned by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is in fact T. S. Eliot, who between 1910 and 1916 wrote an early poem to which he gave the title ‘The Triumph of Bullshit,’ written in the form of a ballade. The word bullshit does not appear in the text of the poem and Eliot did not publish this poem during his lifetime. As to earlier etymology the OED cites ‘bull’ with the meaning ‘trivial, insincere, untruthful talk or writing, nonsense.’ It describes this usage as being of unknown origin. A theory by lexicographer Eric Partridge claims that the term was popularized by Australian and New Zealand troops from about 1916 arriving at the front during World War I. They were astonished at the British commanding officers’ emphasis on bull. Bull was the term for attention to appearances – spit and polish, making everything just so, even when it was a hindrance to waging war. The Diggers ridiculed the British by calling it not bull but bullshit.

Bullshit is commonly used to describe statements made by people more concerned with the response of the audience than in truth and accuracy, such as goal-oriented statements made in the field of politics or advertising. On one prominent occasion, the word itself was part of a controversial advertisement. During the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, the environmentalist ‘Citizens Party’ candidate Barry Commoner ran a radio advertisement that began with an actor exclaiming: ‘Bullshit! Carter, Reagan and Anderson, it’s all bullshit!’ NBC refused to run the advertisement because of its use of the expletive, but Commoner’s campaign successfully appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to allow the advertisement to run unedited.

‘Bullshit’ does not necessarily have to be a complete fabrication; with only basic knowledge about a topic, bullshit is often used to make the audience believe that one knows far more about the topic by feigning total certainty or making probable predictions. It may also merely be ‘filler’ or nonsense that, by virtue of its style or wording, gives the impression that it actually means something. In his essay on the subject, Educational psychologist William G. Perry called bull[shit] ‘relevancies, however relevant, without data’ and gave a definition of the verb ‘to bull[shit]’ as: ‘To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data if one had any. To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.’

The bullshitter generally either knows the statements are likely false, exaggerated, and in other ways misleading or has no interest in their factual accuracy one way or the other. ‘Talking bullshit’ is thus a lesser form of lying, and is likely to elicit a correspondingly weaker emotional response: whereas an obvious liar may be greeted with derision, outrage, or anger, an exponent of bullshit tends to be dismissed with an indifferent sneer.

In his essay ‘On Bullshit’ (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The ‘bullshitter,’ on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress: ‘It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.’

Frankfurt connects this analysis of bullshit with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s disdain of ‘non-sense’ talk, and with the popular concept of a ‘bull session’ in which speakers may try out unusual views without commitment. He fixes the blame for the prevalence of ‘bullshit’ in modern society upon anti-realism and upon the growing frequency of situations in which people are expected to speak or have opinions without appropriate knowledge of the subject matter.

Marxist political philosopher Gerald Cohen, in ‘Deeper into Bullshit,’ contrasted the kind of ‘bullshit’ Frankfurt describes with a different sort: nonsense discourse presented as sense. Cohen points out that this sort of bullshit can be produced either accidentally or deliberately. While some writers do deliberately produce bullshit, a person can also aim at sense and produce nonsense by mistake; or a person deceived by a piece of bullshit can repeat it innocently, without intent to deceive others. Cohen gives the example of Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ as a piece of deliberate bullshit. The article was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, to investigate whether a journal would ‘publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.’ Sokal’s aim in creating it was to point out that the ‘postmodernist’ editors who accepted his paper for publication could not distinguish nonsense from sense, and thereby by implication that their field was ‘bullshit.’

Outside of the academic world, among natural speakers of North American English, as an interjection or adjective, bullshit conveys general displeasure, an objection to, or points to unfairness within, some state of affairs. In this 20th century colloquial usage, ‘bullshit’ does not give a truth score to another’s discourse. It simply labels something that the speaker does not like and feels he is unable to change.


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