Bullshit (also bullshite or bullcrap) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism B.S. In British English, "bollocks" is a comparable expletive. It is mostly a slang term and a profanity which means "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".
In philosophy and psychology of cognition the term "bullshit" is sometimes used to specifically refer to statements produced without particular concern of truth, to distinguish from a deliberate, manipulative lie intended to subvert the truth. In business and management, guidance for comprehending, recognizing, acting on and preventing bullshit, are proposed for stifling the production and spread of this form of misrepresentation in the workplace, media and society.
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.
"Bull", meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century, while the term "bullshit" has been used as early as 1915 in British and American slang, 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". The term "horseshit" is a near synonym. An occasionally used South African English equivalent, though more common in Australian slang, is "bull dust".
Although there is no confirmed etymological connection, 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.
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.
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:
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. 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. 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".
David Graeber's theory of bullshit work in the modern economy
Anthropologist David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory argues the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs. He contends that over half of societal work is pointless, which becomes psychologically destructive.
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.
In the colloquial English of the Boston, Massachusetts area, "bullshit" can be used as an adjective to communicate that one is angry or upset, for example, "I was wicked bullshit after someone parked in my spot".
A common expression is, "Never try to bullshit a bullshitter," meaning that most everybody can instinctively see through the bullshit.
In popular culture
- On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit, Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, Jonathan A. Fugelsang, Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, pp. 549-563
- McCarthy, Ian P.; Hannah, David; Pitt, Leyland F.; McCarthy, Jane M. (2020-05-01). "Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit". Business Horizons. 63 (3): 253–263. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2020.01.001. ISSN 0007-6813.
- Concise Oxford English Dictionary
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2011-11-12.
- Peter Hartcher (2012-11-06). "US looks Down Under to stop poll rot". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
- Orwell, George (1933). Down and Out in Paris and London. 80 Strand, London England: Penguin Books. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-141-04270-1.CS1 maint: location (link)
- Paul Siegel (2007). Communication Law in America. Paul Siegel. pp. 507–508. ISBN 978-0-7425-5387-3.
- "Harry Frankfurt on bullshit". Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
- Shafer, Jack (December 24, 2015), "The Limits of Fact-Checking", Politico Magazine, retrieved 10 January 2016
- Cohen, G.A. (2002). "Deeper into Bullshit". Originally appeared in Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. Reprinted in Hardcastle and Reich, Bullshit and Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), ISBN 0-8126-9611-5.
- 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."
- "Bullshit". Universal Hub.
- Eliot, T. S. (1997). Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917. Harcourt. 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.. "Public doublespeak: every little movement has a meaning all of its own". College English, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Sep., 1975), pp. 54–61.
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