A little while ago I came across this one-liner on Facebook which I duly shared with my students:

Grammar: the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

I thought this was a neat way to demonstrate to those learning the language of, albeit far removed from, Shakespeare how a simple apostrophe can dramatically change the meaning of something. It also helps demonstrate the flexibility of the noun “shit;” which in literal terms we know signifies excrement but here implies two polar states of enlightenment – first devout knowledge and then half-wittedness.

While some might frown on me for teaching the youth of France English swear words it is worth considering how many everyday, anglophonic conversations might contain one of the following uses of the excremental word:

  • To shit on someone from a great height
  • To be full of shit
  • To be in the shit
  • To take someone’s shit
  • To shit or get off the toilet
  • To say “No shit” or “Are you shitting me?”
  • To talk bullshit
  • To talk shit
  • When the shit hits the fan
  • etc.

And therefore, if you don’t know this shit, as a foreigner you risk getting in all kinds of shit as a result.

Now, I find it somewhat ironic that despite the vocabulary of excrement playing such a key role in our daily lives that we feel so uncomfortable talking about shit itself. (Just to be clear, here I do actually mean crap, poop, turds, excrement etc. and not some other undefined theme.)

It is perhaps for this reason that only as recently as 1997 did two academics at the University of Bristol come up with a way of medically, seriously and scientifically discussing stools without the brown spectre of scatological humour destroying the conversation. The official line was that they wanted to help doctors in their diagnoses of all kinds of poop-chute ailments – but I’ll let you decided what their real motivation was.

Their motion was that medical establishments should adopt a universal scale for identifying the seven basic types of faecal matter, with pictures of the different turds on a visual ready-reckoner to aid the analysis. This simple idea soon turned into a movement of global proportions as today the Bristol Stool Scale, as it has become known, is helping medical teams around the world discuss shit without using the word “shit.” The example below is taken from the UK’s National Health Service website.

However, if you ask me, the Bristol Stool Scale has a potential beyond medicine; it should be adopted by every household in the land. Kids would be able to analyse their own poop and potentially diagnose any problems long before that awkward conversation with the doctor. And parents would be able to use its meta-language at the dinner table, where conversations about number two’s have hitherto been strictly forbidden. Just imagine:

“Mum – I just did a Bristol type 5.”

“Oh dear. Well you probably need a bit more fibre in your diet. Here, have some sprouts.”

Then the next time someone asks you if you know your shit – you’d be able to say “I do indeed, there are seven different types ranging in consistency from hard-as-nuts to entirely liquid. The ideal shit is known as a Type 4, which is smooth and soft – like a snake or a sausage.”