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Bullshit

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This article is about the expletive. For other uses, see Bullshit (disambiguation).

Bullshit (also bullcrap in the US) 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. It is mostly a slang profanity term meaning "nonsense", especially as a rebuke in response to communication or actions viewed as deceptive, misleading, disingenuous, unfair 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. A person who communicates nonsense on a given subject may be referred to as a "bullshit artist".

While the word is generally used in a deprecatory 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.

As an exclamation, "Bullshit!" conveys a measure of dissatisfaction with something or someone, but this usage need not be a comment on the truth of the matter.

Etymology

"Bull", meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century,[1] while the term "bullshit" has been used as early as 1915 in American slang,[2] and came into popular usage only during World War II. The word "bull" itself may have derived from the Old French bole meaning "fraud, deceit".[2] The term "horseshit" is a near synonym. The South African English equivalent is "bull dust".

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 himself never published the poem.[3]

As to earlier etymology the Oxford English Dictionary cites bull with the meaning "trivial, insincere, untruthful talk or writing, nonsense". It describes this usage as being of unknown origin, but notes that in Old French, the word could mean "boul, boule, bole fraud, deceit, trickery; mod. Icel bull 'nonsense'; also ME bull BUL 'falsehood', and BULL verb, to befool, mock, cheat."[4]

Although there is no confirmed etymological connection, it should be noted that these older meanings are synonymous with the modern expression "bull", generally considered and used as a contraction of "bullshit"

Another proposal, according to the lexicographer Eric Partridge, is that the term was popularized by the Australian and New Zealand troops from about 1916 arriving at the front during World War I. Partridge claims that the British commanding officers placed emphasis on bull; that is, attention to appearances, even when it was a hindrance to waging war. The foreign Diggers allegedly ridiculed the British by calling it bullshit.[5]

In the philosophy of truth and rhetoric

Assertions of fact

"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 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.[6]

Harry Frankfurt's concept

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:[7]

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.

Several political commentators have seen that Frankfurt's concept of bullshit provides insights into political campaigns.[8][9] Jeet Heer, a senior editor at The New Republic, has employed Frankfurt's analysis to explain Donald Trump's many false campaign statements and Trump's lack of concern when challenged on those statements. Heer notes that Trump often replies by claiming that there is no evidence to demonstrate the truth of his claims—or the rebuttals of his critics. This position "takes us to a post-truth world where Trump's statements can't be fact-checked, and ... reality is simply what he says." Heer considers that Trump is not a liar, he "is something worse than a liar. He is a bullshit artist."[10]

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.[11]

Cohen gives the example of Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries" as a piece of deliberate bullshit. Sokal's aim in creating it, however, was to show 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".

In everyday language

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. This colloquial usage of "bullshit", which began in the 20th century, designates another's discourse to be rubbish or nonsense.[12]

Bullshit asymmetry principle

Publicly formulated the first time on January 2013[13] by Alberto Brandolini, an Italian programmer, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle (also known as Brandolini's law[14][15]) states that:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

It became especially popular after a picture of a presentation by Brandolini at XP2014 on May 30, 2014 was posted on Twitter.[16] Brandolini was inspired by reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow right before watching an Italian political talk show with journalist Marco Travaglio and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attacking each other. [17][18] A similar concept, the "bullshit mountain theory", was formulated by the Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli in 2010, roughly stating the same sentence.[19]

Similar thoughts were formulated in the past[citation needed] but they mostly focused on the speed of propagation of bullshit, whereas Brandolini's statement focuses on the difficulty of debunking it.[20]

See also

References

Notes

  1. ^ Concise Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ a b "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2011-11-12. 
  3. ^ Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (Harcourt, 1997) ISBN 0-15-100274-6
  4. ^ Mark Liberman (2005-08-17). "Bullshit: invented by T.S. Eliot in 1910?". Language Log. 
  5. ^ Peter Hartcher (2012-11-06). "US looks Down Under to stop poll rot". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2013-11-05. 
  6. ^ Paul Siegel (2007). Communication Law in America. Paul Siegel. pp. 507–508. ISBN 0-7425-5387-6. 
  7. ^ "Harry Frankfurt on bullshit". Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2013-11-05. 
  8. ^ Shafer, Jack (December 24, 2015), "The Limits of Fact-Checking", Politico Magazine, retrieved 10 January 2016 
  9. ^ Rosenberg, Paul (December 19, 2015), "Donald Trump gets away with bullsh*t: The magical secrets that help him con the press", Salon Magazine, retrieved 10 January 2016 
  10. ^ Heer, Jeet (December 1, 2015), "Donald Trump Is Not a Liar; He's something worse: a bullshit artist", The New Republic, retrieved 9 January 2016 
  11. ^ Cohen, G. A., "Deeper into Bullshit". Originally appeared in Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002). Reprinted in Hardcastle and Reich, Bullshit and Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), ISBN 0-8126-9611-5.
  12. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, "Bullshit". This entry gives a cross-reference to the definition of "Bull", 4.3: "Trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense."
  13. ^ Brandolini, Alberto. "Bullshit Asymmetry Principle - Twitter". Twitter.com. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  14. ^ "Brandolini's law". Ordre spontané on blogspot. Retrieved 1 March 2015. Here is what seems to be the very first appearance of what must, from now on, be known as the Brandolini's law 
  15. ^ "Take the time and effort to correct misinformation". Nature. Retrieved 7 December 2016. 
  16. ^ Farley, Tim. "Bullshit asymmetry principle". Twitter. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  17. ^ Brandolini, Alberto. "Twitter reply". Twitter. Retrieved 1 December 2016. 
  18. ^ Brandolini, Alberto. "Twitter reply". Twitter. Retrieved 1 December 2016. 
  19. ^ Farley, Tim. "La Teoria della Montagna di Merda". Blogspot. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  20. ^ "Brandolini's law". Ordre spontané on blogspot. Retrieved 1 March 2015. it's not that much about the speed of dissemination of bullshit but rather about the inherent difficulty to refute bullshit. 

Bibliography

  • Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (Harcourt, 1997) ISBN 0-15-100274-6
  • Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12294-6.  — Harry Frankfurt's detailed analysis of the concept of bullshit.
  • Hardcastle, Gary L.; Reisch, George A., eds. (2006). Bullshit and Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court (Carus Publishing). ISBN 0-8126-9611-5. 
  • Holt, Jim, Say Anything, one of his Critic At Large essays from The New Yorker, (August 22, 2005)
  • Penny, Laura (2005). Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit. Random House. ISBN 1-4000-8103-3.  — Halifax academic Laura Penny's study of the phenomenon of bullshit and its impact on modern society.
  • Weingartner, C. (1975). Public doublespeak: every little movement has a meaning all of its own. College English, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Sep., 1975), pp. 54–61.