Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Blog

This is so haggard

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.

Haggard

I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.

 

 

2 Responses to “This is so haggard”

  1. Joe Stafford Says:

    “Haggard” is how cool EVERYONE who resisted ’45’ – spent money, blood, sweat, tears, toner ink — flipped Republican districts, and redirected our fellow citizens back to at least an approximate path of American values. Yes, I want to be haggard, it’s my kind of cool. More than cool, it’s an accomplishment, a worthy goal!

  2. Joe Stafford Says:

    Yes – it will be cool.

Leave a Reply