Posted by Peter K. Smith on January 15, 2003
A New Etymology of s h i t!
Author: (c)Peter K. Smith, Almere, The Netherlands: 15-1-2003.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the export of agricultural goods was exclusively by ship. Thus, in the days before commercial fertilizers had been invented, large shipments of manure to customers overseas - mainly farmers and growers - were quite commonplace. To cut costs, manure would be shipped 'dry', since in dry form it weighed much less than when wet. However, when it came into contact with either water or seawater, it not only became heavier, it also acted like a catalyst, switching on the process of fermentation, the major by-product of which of course is methane gas!
Because the dry, compressed sacks of manure were always stored below decks often close to the bilges, you can imagine what could - and did - happen. Methane gas began to accumulate in those dark, confined quarters below decks, once it came into contact with seawater that leaks into every ship's bilges (bilge water). When the 'bad smell' was detected above, a rating would typically be sent below with a candle-lantern to check out where the smell was coming from, with the inevitable result: BOOOOOM!!
Many ships were destroyed in this way, before an astute quartermaster (who had heard about explosions in coalmines) finally figured out that it was the flame of a candle igniting the methane gas - gas that had built up in the damp, often soggy confined spaces below decks - that had caused so many ships to suddenly explode and sink to the bottom of the ocean. After that, exporters of manure were legally obliged to stamp all bundles of the material with the words "SHIP HIGH IN TRANSIT", thereby advising ship loaders to stow the hard manure bundles sufficiently high off the lower decks to ensure that any bilge water that (inevitably) leaked into the hold would not come into contact with this volatile cargo.
This is generally believed by etymologists to be the true origin of the word "s h i t", and the word has come down through the centuries and is still in common parlance to this very day. Interestingly, the expression "Just going for a leak" is also thought to date back to the same time when those same merchant seamen used to inform a ship's officer that they were about to leave their post on board ship in order to go below and trace the bad smell emanating from deep within the bowels of the ship!
And I always thought the word 's h i t' was a golf term!