[Ads-l] bullshit detector

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 22 02:11:14 EST 2022

Mike Scott (lead singer of the band The Waterboys) posted a query on
Twitter about the phrase "bullshit detector," which he first heard in the
1977 song by The Clash, "Garageland."


In 1958, Ernest Hemingway famously used the expression "shit-detector" in
The Paris Review:

Ernest Hemingway, "The Art of Fiction No. 21," interview with George
Paris Review, Vol. 18, Spring 1958
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof

As for "bullshit detector," the earliest citation that looks legitimate on
Google Books is from 1969:

https://books.google.com/books?id=vIxBAAAAIAAJ&q=bullshit (snippet view)
Garson Kanin, _Cast of Characters: Stories of Broadway and Hollywood_
(1969) , p. 409
An indispensable ace with a built-in radar-type bullshit detector.

The next earliest cite I've found is from 1970:

Edwin "Bud" Shrake, "The Land of the Permanent Wave"
_Harper's_, Feb. 1970, p. 78 [ProQuest]
Dowdy’s bullshit detector had not been functioning while wet, but now there
was a clattering in the machinery inside his head and he cast a suspicious,
stricken look at us.

There's a hit on Google Books snippet view that appears to be from 1967,
but it's actually misdated and misidentified. The Google Books record for
the volume has the title _Theatre at Work: Playwrights and Productions in
the Modern British Theatre: a Collection of Interviews and Essays_ (1967),
but a search on "1973" reveals it's actually Charles Marowitz's
_Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: a London Theatre Notebook, 1958-1971_


The 1973 book is available on Internet Archive. There you can see that the
line appears in a commentary on Marowitz's April 1967 Village Voice review
of a staging of Chekhov's _Three Sisters_.

Charles Marowitz,  _Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: a London Theatre
Notebook, 1958-1971_, 1973, p. 126
Whenever she worked, one could hear her built-in bullshit-detector, that
most delicate of all precision instruments, ticking in the background.

The original Village Voice review is here, and it doesn't have the
"bullshit detector" line:



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

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