Sunday 12 August 2012

Bull, Bullshit and T.S. Eliot

Some words have origins much ruder than you might imagine, others were once clean and pure but now smeared by association. Take, for example, the phrase "a load of bull". This is usually believed to be a shortening of bullshit. And bullshit, you might imagine, was merely an expansion of good old shit.

But way back at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the writer of Cursor Mundi said that he wanted to tell his story "withuten bul", meaning without any nonsense. He was not one of the hypocrites that are "all ful with wickednes, tresun and bull".

Bull goes back to the Old French boul, and beyond that to the Latin bulla, which meant bubble. So when somebody talks of a "load of bull", it is not excrement, but empty and worthless bubbles.

Dialect Notes of 1914 mentions bull as "Bull, talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’", and bullshit is first recorded by the OED in 1915. Guess who invented it.

The first known use of the excremental bull is in a poem describing the publishing industry titled The Triumph of Bullshit, which was written by T.S. Eliot. The poem was written before 1915 (probably 1910), and of course Eliot may not have invented the word, simply used it.

So for your delectation and delight, here is Mr Eliot's work in full. I should warn you that it's not really in the style of the Four Quartets. Of course, the ladies referred to are the lady publishers who kept rejecting his poems:

The Triumph of Bullshit

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias,
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche,
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous,
Dull as a heart of an unbaked brioche,
Floundering versicles, feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous,
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out "this stuff is too stiff for us" -
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys,
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous - all this will pass;
Quite innocent - "he only wants to make shiver us."
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ's sake stick them up your ass.

I love the phrase "ineptly meticulous". More early Eliot poems here.


  1. Anyone who is now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his less scabrous later works is invited to visit the website of The TS Eliot Society UK, which contains a wealth of links and resources for enthusiasts and scholars.

  2. Screwed up is my favourite phrase for sounding smutty but being innocent.

  3. Bloody rude!

  4. 'Quaking a tremor' is the forte of TS Eliot and not an idiot like me.