— Jenny Neill

Dunged: On ‘Bat Sh%t Crazy’

The idea for this Dunged post came from reading questions posed by another Seattle writer, Becky Selengut. The curious among you can see the original discussion in a November 2012 post in which Selengut made these inquiries: “Where did the expression bat-sh%t crazy come from? What is it about bats? Why does their excrement seem to imply some form of mental break?”

I wondered too and I asked my favorite word snooper, Lexie Kahn, to see if she could dig up the answer. I’m passing the keyboard over to her to explain what she found.

Lexie Kahn, word snooper

Photo courtesy of Lexie Kahn, also known as Judy Herman. Some rights reserved.

Hey, Jenny. Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper here. You asked me about the origin of the expression “batshit crazy.” I burrowed into the fragrant etymological heap and here’s the straight poop.

Although “shit” meaning “excrement” goes back to Old English, I was surprised to learn that its figurative use, meaning “rubbish” or “something regarded as worthless,” has not been documented earlier than 1890 and its meaning ‘nonsense or lies’ seems to date only to the early 20th century.

But shit isn’t the only stinky pile of glop used to signify nonsense. There are rubbish, hogwash, rot, garbage, tripe, poppycock (from Dutch dialect pappekak, from pap “soft” + kak “dung”), tommyrot (rubbish) and, of course, horseshit and bullshit. According to Loretta Johnson in this paper, T.S. Eliot may have been the first to use “bullshit” in this sense in a poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” dated 1910.

Regardless of which species produced the poop, if someone is full of shit, he or she is talking nonsense and may be deluded, if not certifiably crazy. But why do we refer to “batshit” rather than the excreta of some other animal? Maybe it’s because “batty” or “bats” means crazy. Those terms stem from the expression “to have bats in the belfry,” which seems to have cropped up out of nowhere in 1900 with a song “Bats in their Belfry” and a book “Bats in the Belfry.”

Mexican Freetail Bats flying out of Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico at dusk

Photo courtesy of Eamonn O’Brien-Strain. Some rights reserved.

The first source the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites for “batshit” in the sense of “insane,” is Lt. William Calley, of My Lai Massacre infamy. In a 1971 book he was quoted as saying, “Most of America’s males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren’t all going batshit.” The OED suggests the expression maybe influenced by “to go ape-shit,” which the editors label U.S. Air Force slang and date to 1955.

Since “batshit” means “crazy,” “batshit crazy” is a bit of redundancy for emphasis. If you need evidence that the expression has gained wider currency since the 1950s, the OED cites the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Nexis) 23 April, 2005: “Rumors of an intensity 9 earthquake made the rounds and caused a number of… Metro Manilans to go batshit insane, albeit for two whole minutes.”

[Lexie passes the keyboard back to Jenny.]

Thanks for looking into that, Lexie. I went wandering the wilds of the web to find the lyrics to “Bats in the Belfry” and found three songs recorded since the 1980s. I guess, then, whatever its origins the synonyms for going a bit crazy inspired by flying mammals will be with us for much of this century too!