In Polite Conversation, Jonathan Swift presents dialogues made up of clichés, banalities and catchphrases. When Miss Notable makes a remark seen as witty, Mr Neverout exclaims: ‘Why, Miss, you shine this Morning like a shitten Barn-Door.’
Perhaps we might not admit such an adjective, even in this archaic form, to polite company — except that among the chattering classes no word is entirely ostracised. In 2001, Barbara Amiel, Lady Black of Crossharbour, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘the ambassador of a major EU country politely told a gathering at my home that the current troubles in the world were all because of “that shitty little country Israel”.’ The remark was presented as the ‘open expression’ of anti-Semitism, though the man who made it, Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to London, denied that. He was transferred to Algeria, where he died shortly afterwards.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘contemptible’ as one of its meanings, and I wondered at the time whether Bernard thought it had the effect of reinforcing little rather than adding a scatological element of disgust.
So what of the question by Donald Trump: ‘Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?’ He used the noun shithole attributively to function as an adjective. Shithole as a noun has two main denotations: ‘anus’ (or ‘rectum’) and ‘privy’.
That it is not much attested before the 20th century is partly attributable to its low senses. Few wrote it down. A manuscript giving by far the earliest example, from 1629, was little known until published in 1985. Rather than the ‘privy’ sense, the metaphor of shithole for undesirable places is taken from the sense of ‘rectum’. Still, one man’s des-res is another’s shithole. Within living memory it has been applied to the Caledonian Road in London, isolated rural spots where incest is said to be rife, and, by Nick Hornby (in fiction) to suburbia. To damn suburbia and its denizens as a quaking shithole is quite within the bounds of propriety, while to suggest that a whole country could qualify is taken to be racist. Yet many of us could think of one country or another that might merit the label.