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21 August 2005 @ 18:11
One end is rore, the other shit (part 1 of 2)  

Perhaps it's appropriate that Jim Holt's essay on bullshit ("Say Anything," in the August 22 issue of The Beau and the Butterfly) begins with some misleading language. "People have been talking bull, denying that they were talking bull, and accusing others of talking bull for ages," Holt writes, and then backs up this statement with a quotation from Richard Brome's 1640 play The Antipodes, or, The World Turn’d Upside Down: "Dumbe Speaker! That's a Bull." Holt correctly observes that the use of bull to refer to nonsense long predates the modern use of bullshit (for the ongoing investigation into the true age of bullshit, see various recent posts on Language Log, and this one on Languagehat), but he fails to point out that bull, in this earlier sense, referred to a very specific kind of nonsense, and one that's quite different from the bullshit with which the rest of the article is concerned.

Diagram of bullshit, yoinked from a band called Hateful Monday

A bull (note that bull in this sense was a count noun) is a paradoxical or oxymoronic expression; Sydney Smith defined it as "an apparent congruity, and real incongruity of ideas, suddenly discovered." What Brome's character means is not, as Holt seems to be inviting the reader to infer, "Stupid speaker! That's bullshit!" but rather "'Mute speaker'! That's an oxymoron!" The OED, s.v. bull sb. 4 (which is also where I found the Smith quote) gives us more of Brome; the line continues "Thou wert the Bull Then, in the Play. Would I had seene thee rore," to which another character replies, "That's a Bull too" (meaning that it is an oxymoron to speak of seeing the roar of a bull).

(Aside: Actually, dumb speakers are pretty smart, if you believe Fra. Giacomo Affinati d'Acuto Romano, who wrote "The dumbe diuine speaker, or: Dumbe speaker of Diuinity: A learned and excellent treatise, in praise of silence: shewing both the dignitie, and defectes of the tongue" (translated into English in 1605 by Anthony Munday), anticipating Will Rogers's dictum "Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.")

I have more to say about the substance of Holt's article, but I'll put it in a separate post; this etymological quibble has gone on long enough.