DIPSHIT: A Cultural History
Bill Long 11/26/06
To A Friend Who Wishes, For Good Reason, To Be Anonymous
[For another interesesting word study, on ballbuster, click here.]
[Reader Claudia Pearson has an interesting take on how the word "dipshit" might have emerged. See below.]
The first thing I want to say is that this is a serious essay with a serious thesis. The thesis is that we have been studying the 1960s in America incorrectly: rather than focusing on the glories of the Civil Rights Movement or the Free Speech Movement, for example, we learn a lot more about that decade by examining the insult words that were first used in the 1960s. This essay will introduce seven or eight of them, all beginning with the letter "D." There are probably many more. Free Speech and Civil Rights have ebbed and flowed, but dipshits, for example, seem to keep proliferating without an end in sight.
The Standard Way of Presenting the 1960s
Let me be clear. I am a law professor (for the moment); I have been a professor of history; I have an Ivy League Ph.D. in the history of religions. I respect very much two movements from the 1960s that I think have had enormous influence in American life: the Civil Rights Movement and the Free Speech Movement. The first took wing in the 1960s after a long gestatation period, in law, going back thirty or forty years. So many things coalesced for the CR Movement in the early 1960s, not the least of which was an eloquent and moderate leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., who was informed by the philosophies of both Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi. The lore of that movement, from sit-ins at lunch counters, to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963, to the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in May 1965, to the signing of the Civil Rights Act by Lyndon Baines Johnson in August 1965 (with his famous line..."And We Shall Overcome") is part of the quilted history of America. And, the 1960s will forever be identified as the decade where the Civil Rights Movement moved from its fits and starts in legal cases and protests to becoming a national concern. It certainly must be taught.
The Free Speech Movement had a different, but no less important, history. Instead of a long gestation period, this movement was launched in a matter of weeks at UC Berkeley in October 1964 as a result of a misguided attempt of the campus administrators to restrict places where students could hand out literature. It is not too much of a stretch to identify the origin of the Viet Nam anti-war protest movement with the rustlings of the FSM in 1964.
The dual pillars of the CRM and the FSM hold up the temple of contemporary pedagogy of the 1960s in America. In fact, I would say that the "orthodox" way to teach the 1960s is to anchor it in these two movements. The former led to the debates over affirmative action, which are ongoing, and the latter led to the crisis surrounding America's involvement in SE Asia, the counterculture and the end of the Viet Nam war. Who could argue for an alternative vision of teaching the 1960s?
An Alternative Vision
Well, let me try. My approach is to see these two movements within a larger framework of linguistic and cultural development in America at that time. In other words, my thesis is that our expanded understanding of language and indeed, insult language, paved the way for people to engage in confrontation, peaceful or not-so-peaceful, within a newly accepted linguistic framework. Because we relaxed our understanding of what was acceptable speech in America in the early 1960s, we were less able to object when Black Nationalists would call police "pigs" or passive Whites "honkies." Because we were willing to allow an increased range of insults as a normal part of communication in our culture, we were less able to shut down the "free speech" individuals who would berate university authorities or even wear T-shirts that said "Fuck the Draft!" My thesis, then, is that the there was a revolution in the 1960s, but it was a revolution in what America was willing to tolerate as acceptable speech in the public square. Because we let down almost all our boundaries of speech (though, as comedian George Carlin reminded us, we still had the seven words that couldn't be said on the air) before the CRM and the FSM, we were powerless to stand up to the rhetoric of those movements.
Take Dipshit, For Example
Here is a short list of insult words that are first attested in the 1960s or slightly thereafter. All of them appear in the mighty OED, with appropriate citations, if you want to check them out further. These words are only those which begin with "D." There are many others, to be sure, such as the 1956 reference in American Speech to a "new obscenity symbol," called "m-f" (this is a PG 13 article, isn't it?), but I will confine my list to only nine "D" words, with the year of their first attestation. In historical order, they are: (1) doofus-1960; (2) dipshit-1962/63; (3) douche-bag-1963; (4) diddly-squat-1963; (5) dirt-bag-1967; (6) dweeb-1968; (7) dickhead-1969 [Interestingly enough, there is an attestation of "dick-ass," meaning a stupid person, going back to the mid-19th century, but it really never caught on. Perhaps the reference to both genital areas in one word confused our progenitors in the middle of the Victorian Era. But dickhead came to the rescue a century later]; (8) ditzy-1973; and (9) ditz-1982. Ditz is a noun, while ditzy is an adjective. Thus, we see that insult cradled the other "big movements" of the day. And, almost all of these insults caught on. A Google search on "dipshit," for example, yields more than 600,000 results. It appears half as often as the word it was meant to replace/comment upon--"dipstick."
Let's conclude this essay by a few words on dipshit. Here and here are essays on some of the other terms. Interestingly enough, dipshit isn't in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (after all, what collegian needs to use it or is used to speaking that way?), but it appears in the majestic OED. The word dipstick, from which dipshit was taken, was invented in 1927, and refers to one of several devices dipped into a liquid to perform some kind of chemical test or measurement of the quantity of the liquid. British English, certainly a more refined expression of the language than American English, uses the word "Dipstick" to refer to someone whose intellectual bulb is a little dim. "That referee is a right dipstick."
It took us creative Americans, however, to invent dipshit. I don't know the precise circumstance that led the first American (probably a teenage male) to gaze at his friend and say, "You are a real dipshit," but we do know that the first literary attestation of the world was in the 1963 book American Speech. It meant a stupid, inept, or contemptible person; an idiot. Here is the inaugural sentence: "Pejorative expressions traditionally directed at the supposedly less sophisticated rural resident: country bumpkin, dipshit, etc." By the time we get to 1970 we definitely have an American usage of the term: "It's not the dumb, jerkoff dipshits that are doing it.." And then, from Rolling Stone in 2003, a magazine put out by Wenner publications (where my daughter worked for a while): "A cowboy isn't some dipshit with a ten-gallon hat and a dinner plate on his belt." Well, since there are more than 600,000 other attestations of the term, there is no need for me to multiply references to it. But you get the point. "Dipshit" emerged at a time when the language of invective or insult was underg
oing dramatic change in America.*
[I am grateful to reader Claudia Pearson for the following piece of information, sent to me on 11/4/07:
I have been reading your website with amusement and thought this a more probable source of origin for one of the derogatory "D" terms you list. Latrine maintenance manuals for the army indicate that " When a latrine is filled to within 1 foot (30 centimeters) of the ground surface... it is closed."
The only way to know when the crap reaches this level is to send someone to the latrine with a dip stick to see how high it has gotten. Given the date of origin assigned to this term (1962), it probably arose during the Vietnam era and was used to describe the soldiers who were given this duty. You might interview some Vietnam era vets and see if this is correct.]
Thank you, Claudia. Any other comments? I hope you never look at the CRM or the FSM the same again.
I received another comment (10/31/11) from a reader regarding his experience with "dipshit." Reader Dick Brewster writes:
"I read your article on the word 'dipshit.' I was first exposed to the word during US Air Force basic training in Lackland AFB in January 1961. It was commonly used by the TIs (Air Force Drill Sergeants). More often than not with a southern accent. It was common enough then that I suspect it had been in use in the military for some time then."
This would take us back to the 1950s or before....any further comment?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long