An obscure bit of military slang

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 25 14:36:25 UTC 2008

Back in the day, my roommate told me the following Firesign Theater routine:

[Intro that I've forgotten]

Quizmaster: That's right, Mrs. Jones! you are a winner! Now, please
make your choice. Will you choose what's behind the golden door or
what's in this brown paper bag?

Mrs. Smith: I choose what's in that brown paper bag.

[Sound of crinkling as brown paper bag is opened]

Mrs. Smith [in state of shock]: Why, why, this is a bag of shit!!!

Quizmaster [voice filled with joy] Yes, Mrs. Smith, It's shit! But
it's _GOOD_ shit!!!

I blush to admit it, but, even though when I first heard this bit
(summer of 1972), it cracked me up and "It's shit, but it's *good*
shit!" became a catchphrase in our clique, it was only a few weeks ago
that it was explained to me that the "shit" in the brown bag was
Acapulco gold. *That* was why the shit was *good* shit!

That is, for 36 years, I had completely missed the point of the
routine. For all this time, I had thought that the "bag of shit" was
literally a bag of shit! What I found funny was the idea that the
quizmaster could seriously think that anyone would consider a bag of
shit, as long as the shit was, in some sense, "good" shit, to be
something desirable.

This despite the fact that, years before, in an Amsterdam club, a
Dutch West Indian had asked me, "Say, mon. You go for that shit?" I
had immediately understood that he was trying to con me into buying a
bag of oregano that was supposed to be weed and was by no means asking
whether I was interested in literal shit. And, in Deutschlisch,
"Schitt" always has / had? the meaning, "marijuana, grass, weed," etc.

IAC, now that I understand the true import of the routine, I've been
as happy as a pig in shit.


On Mon, Feb 25, 2008 at 6:38 AM, Dennis Preston <preston at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>  Poster:       Dennis Preston <preston at MSU.EDU>
>  Subject:      Re: An obscure bit of military slang
>  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>  Wilson,
>  Good proverbial shit (not counting lots of slang shits as a single
>  lexical item, e.g., this blow is some good shit) is not just
>  military, at least in the form to "to X like a pig in shit," a
>  proverbial comparison indicating only good or desirable outcomes.
>  Mah wahf (Milwaukee): How'd you sleep last night.
>  Me (Louisville): Like a pig in shit.
>  Mah wahf: ???????
>  The more specific ("lucky") military sense seems pretty clearly
>  related to the again much more widely distributed "fall into a pile
>  (gob, etc...) of shit and come out smelling like a rose."
>  dInIs
>  >---------------------- Information from the mail header
>  >-----------------------
>  >Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>  >Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
>  >Subject:      An obscure bit of military slang
>  >-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>  >
>  >"To live in shit"
>  >
>  >To have everything go right, despite the fact that there's no reason
>  >to expect it to and, especially, if there is a possibility that things
>  >might go horribly awry.
>  >
>  >I.e., at a full-dress inspection at the Army Language School. Whelan
>  >forgot to put on the "brass" that's obligatory whenever the "class-A"
>  >uniform is worn. Since these inspections took place only on Fridays,
>  >he would have received a "gig" and been confined to quarters for the
>  >weekend. However, by sheer chance, that Friday's inspection was
>  >carried out by a Navy officer - the Navy, unlike the Air Force, had no
>  >language school of its own and used the Army's school - who, being
>  >unfamiliar with Army-uniform protocol, failed to notice that Whelan
>  >was out of uniform.
>  >
>  >Since Monterey, CA, where the Language School, now called the Defense
>  >Language Institute, is located, is a major tourist destination only a
>  >few miles from San Francisco, confinement to quarters was tantamount
>  >to solitary confinement, since the barracks would have been as empty
>  >as the Sahara till Sunday night. So, he was very lucky.
>  >
>  >Another time, Whelan unexpectedly dropped by my crib. There would be
>  >nothing of interest about this, except that this occurred in
>  >Cambridge, MA, in 1972 and Whelan had seen neither hide nor hair of me
>  >since we were students together in 1960, when I lived in Los Angeles,
>  >and, hence, he had no reason whatsoever to think that I would be in
>  >Cambridge. He was looking up someone else in the phone book, when he
>  >ran across my name. Given that he hadn't seen me or heard about me in
>  >twelve years, there was no reason at all for him to think that it
>  >could possibly the same guy that he had known in the Army more than a
>  >dekkid earlier. Of course, he could have called to check, but he
>  >didn't. He simply dropped by. Needless to say, since he hadn't
>  >bothered to call ahead, I might not have been home. But I was. And,
>  >naturally, I might not have been the same guy. But I am. So, he was
>  >very lucky.
>  >
>  >Were I still in the military, I'd say that Dennis Whelan lived in
>  >shit. And his luck o' the Irish neither began nor ended with these two
>  >anecdotes.
>  >
>  >-Wilson
>  >--
>  >All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
>  >come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
>  >-----
>  >                                               -Sam'l Clemens
>  >
>  >------------------------------------------------------------
>  >The American Dialect Society -
>  --
>  Dennis R. Preston
>  University Distinguished Professor
>  Department of English
>  Morrill Hall 15-C
>  Michigan State University
>  East Lansing, MI 48864 USA
>  ------------------------------------------------------------
>  The American Dialect Society -

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
                                              -Sam'l Clemens

The American Dialect Society -

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