[Ads-l] siftless

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 30 06:23:18 UTC 2015

On Sun, Mar 29, 2015 at 11:44 PM, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
> On 3/29/2015 9:24 PM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
> >
> > I don't see this word on the Oxford Dictionary site or in Wiktionary.
> >
> > AFAIK, it's used only in expressions like "between shiftless and
> > siftless in the dictionary" (meaning "shit"). Presumably it means the
> > same thing as "shiftless."
> >
> > I don't know that I've heard this sort of expression since hearing it in
> > Alaska in the early 1980s. Google and Google Books yield no results for
> > "shiftless and shiftless."
> >
> > There's an unrelated meaning for "siftless" at
> > http://www.definition-of.com/siftless, though I don't know if that's
> > actually in use.
> I suspect not unrelated.
> I suppose the phrase is based on the understanding that there is a
> loathsome disease named "siftless", this word originally being
> "syphilis", transmitted [the word, that is] orally.
> [...]
> I suppose the intention is/was to bracket whatever is being derogated
> (i.e., "shit") between two words which themselves have negative denotations.

"You'll get no sympathy from me! You want sympathy, look in the
dictionary between shit and syphilis!"
--"Major Payne" (1995)

Googling for "sympathy," "shit," and "syphilis" reveals many
variations on this theme. The earliest I've found is from Grover
Lewis's article, "Splendor in the Short Grass: The Making of the Last
Picture Show" (_Rolling Stone_, Sept. 2, 1971, reprinted in _Splendor
in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader_, 2005).

"In a sudden hush, the cameras begin to roll, but Cybill blows the
take by missing her mark parking the convertible. When she stammers
out an apology, the sound mixer stage-whispers gruffly: 'Sympathy can
be found in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, sister.'"


Garson has collected some other dictionary-order sayings on Quote Investigator:



Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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