An obscure bit of military slang

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 25 15:43:50 UTC 2008

On Mon, Feb 25, 2008 at 10:15 AM, Mark Mandel <thnidu at> wrote:
> On Mon, Feb 25, 2008 at 9:36 AM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> > 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.
> That sounds to me like a post facto interpretation. If Mrs. Smith had been
> someone likely to recognize and appreciate Acapulco Gold, she wouldn't have
> reacted with dismay or in those words. I can see the routine as playing off
> the phrase "good shit", but the joke (IMHO) is in the prize's being a
> literal bag of shit -- the absurdity is very Firesignly--, and maybe
> secondarily in the literal use of the idiom that Mrs. Smith is probably
> totally in the dark about.

FWIW, I just listened to the relevant bit of "Don't Crush That Dwarf,
Hand Me The Pliers" (1970), and the shit in question is great, not

"You mean you're gonna trade this four-foot cube of 18-carat Swiss
bullion, and the snake knives, Mrs. Presky, all for that little bag?"
"Yes, I want the bag!"
"Well, all right then, open it up!"
"Oh, why... this is a bag of shit!"
"But it's really great shit, Mrs. Presky!"

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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