Mud, shit, and chocolate

Caught on re-run tv yesterday, in the Law & Order S19 E10 episode “Pledge” (from 1/21/09):

Your entire case rests on this girl’s testimony. If her only impetus to cooperate is greed, you’re in trouble. Who dangled money in front of her in the first place?

The cops. They knew she was in debt, so they pressed her pretty hard.

It’s going to look like we bought her testimony. What a mud sandwich this is turning into.

And only a few months before that, in an emotional  9/29/08 speech on the floor of the U.S. Congress by Rep. John Boehner in support of the TARP bill bailing out big banks:

None of us came here to have to vote for this mud sandwich!

(You can watch it here.)

Yes, mud sandwich. A euphemism for shit sandwich.

Some perils of euphemism. The two cases are different. The euphemism was put into the mouth of District Attorney Jack McCoy by the writers of Law & Order, to protect the show from legal troubles. As the keeper of the All Things Law and Order site noted on 1/22/09:

And really, does anyone believe the real Jack McCoy would say they had a “mud sandwich?’ I can think of a better descriptive word, but I guess it isn’t appropriate for network TV.

On the other hand, Boehner came up with the euphemism on hs own hook, and was widely derided for it. But he was a public figure, speaking in a official forum, in his own voice — and chose to clearly communicate the crude shit sandwich while daintily avoiding the word shit, thus managing to get the worst of both worlds: he comes off as simultaneously brutish and prissy.

These are circumstances where a wise person usually steers clear entirely of taboo vocabulary.

Some readers will be reminded of Bush 41 (U.S. President George H.W. Bush) and his (often mocked) in deep doo-doo for in deep shit. I’ll get to that below, after we wade through some more mud.

Shit sandwiches in the dictionaries. A range of meanings, from three dictionary sources, plus a YouTube video.

From OED3 (Sept. 2011):

shit sandwich  n. a very unpleasant or unfair situation; frequently as part of an extended metaphor. [The use in quot. 1966 is from an interpolation in the English version of the text, and does not have an analogue in the French original.]

1966 E. Williams tr. D. Spoerri Anecdoted Topogr. Chance iii. 9 Just this morning Monsieur Georges expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that ‘Life is a shit sandwich’ with: ‘Yes, and we take a bite every day.’

2004 E. Reid D.B. i. 29 Another lunchbox working-class joe who was beginning to realize that maybe the American Dream was just a big shit sandwich stacked with empty promises.

An e-card illustration of the catchphrase in the 1966 cite:


Then in GDoS, which introduces a sense specifically of ‘humbling experience’, as well as generally ‘unpleasant experience’:

shit sandwich (n.) 1 a humbling experience; ‘humble pie’. 1968 Current Sl. II:4 9: Shit sandwich, with every day a bite. n. a long-lasting unpleasant situation. 1984 W.J. Caunitz One Police Plaza 258: Life ain’t nothing but a shit sandwich. 2000. J.J. Connolly Layer Cake 11: I can’t […] go back to the Spanish cunt and eat myself a great big shit sandwich, and buy at his price. 2006 Gordon & Trainor Cobra II 314: McKiernan would later tell Thurman that he ‘ate a shit sandwich’.  2 (N.Z.) homosexual anal intercourse. 1988 McGill Dict. of Kiwi Sl. 101/1: shit sandwich male homosexual act. 2003 McGill Reed Dict. of N.Z. Sl. [as cit. 1988].

(It was probably inevitable that some set of speakers, somewhere, would extend the term to anal intercourse.)

And then in Wiktionary, which expands on the sandwich part of the metaphor, with layers of good stuff (the bread) surrounding an unpalatable or disgusting  filling (the shit):

shit sandwich (informal, vulgar) Something highly undesirable made triflingly more palatable by attempting to surround it with more tolerable things.

1997 April 17, David Wild, “‘News Radio’: Series creator Paul Simms talks about the highly likely cancellation of the NBC sitcom,” Rolling Stone: People are starting to realize Thursday night is like a big double-decker shit sandwich with three good pieces of bread, and in between … don’t print that.

2012 April 30, Fred R. Shapiro, “13 Crazy, Dirty Modern Proverbs,” Daily Beast: Life is a shit sandwich: the more bread you have, the less shit you eat.

2017 Feb 17, Kevin Drum, “K.T. McFarland Is Too Much to Swallow, So Robert Harward Turns Down NSA Position,” Mother Jones: After Michael Flynn resigned/was fired as National Security Advisor, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the top prospect to replace him turned out to be Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward. . . . Harward pulled out, reportedly calling the offer a “shit sandwich.”

Synonym: poop sandwich. See also: dirt sandwich, shit soup

An e-card illustration of the catchphrase in the 2012 Shapiro quote, which incorporates the slang sense ‘money’ of bread:


The layeredness of metaphorical shit sandwiches is developed as a joke in a YouTube video by “InadequateChris”, which you can watch here. The idea is that a shit sandwich is: good news, then bad news, then more good news. And a reverse shit sandwich is: bad news, then good news, then more bad news.

Nancy Friedman’s survey. Fritinancy tackled the idiom for Slate on 2/21/17 in the posting “Taking a Bite Out of “S— Sandwich””:

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

These are the best of times for the hardworking shit– prefix. Last week, here on Strong Language, Ben Zimmer investigated the origins of shitgibbon — an epithet that has attached itself to the current occupant of the White House — and plumbed its deeper history in a follow-up post on Slate’s Brow Beat blog. This week, the merde du jour is shit sandwich, which surfaced Thursday afternoon in a tweet from CNN anchor Jake Tapper about Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refusing the post of national security adviser.

… Whether Harward actually uttered the words shit sandwich is up for debate; Tapper’s single source was anonymous, and the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times didn’t even allude in a nonsweary way to the expression. Still, it’s as good a time as any — given the feculent state of affairs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and environs — to take a closer look at the history of shit sandwich. Which turns out to be more curious than you might suppose.

First of all, unlike its culinary kin shit on a shingle (creamed chipped beef on toast; commonly abbreviated as S.O.S.), shit sandwich is most likely not a World War II army coinage. Shit sandwich, variously defined as “a very unpleasant situation” (Oxford English Dictionary) or “a humbling experience; humble pie” (Green’s Dictionary of Slang), first appeared in print, according to the OED, in 1966. Mysteriously, that appearance was in the English translation of An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri, who had written the book in French. Here is the relevant passage:

Just this morning Monsieur Georges expanded the philosophical observation of one of his customers, Camille, that ‘Life is a shit sandwich’ with: ‘Yes, and we take a bite every day.’

The OED annotates the citation: “The use in quot. 1966 is from an interpolation in the English version of the text, and does not have an analogue in the French original.”

No pain à la merdeSacré bleu!

Could shit sandwich have been coined by soldiers in a later conflict — specifically, the Vietnam War? That’s possible, even likely. In a 2011 Language Log post, the linguist Mark Liberman writes that the idiom Satan sandwich is “a sanitized version of the old expression ‘shit sandwich,’ ” which “has been in widespread use, for at least half a century, to describe a deeply unpleasant experience which is nevertheless something that you’re expected to swallow. I certainly heard it more than once in Vietnam.”

Moreover, it turns up — in phrasing almost identical to that in Anecdoted Topography — in a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. The movie, set in 1967 and 1968, is based in part on the war experiences of Michael Herr, author of the Vietnam memoir Dispatches.

(#3) “In other words, it’s a huge shit sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite.” (You can watch this brief clip here)

Liberman had this to say about that particular expression:

This phrase came to be associated with the football player and coach Joe Schmidt, who was fond of the maxim “Life is a shit sandwich, and every day you take another bite”. (The more sanitary end of this saying was used by Larry Merchant for the title of his 1971 football book “And every day you take another bite.”)

Joe Schmidt (born 1932) played professional football from 1953 to 1965 and coached the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1972.

Shit sandwich is also frequently extended into a different idiom, this one about money (“bread”). [See the e-card in #2.]

Disconcertingly, shit sandwich is not always a metaphor. See, for example, a Nov. 5, 2016, story in the San Antonio Express-News, tactfully headlined “Officials: SA cop fired for attempting to feed fecal sandwich to homeless person.” (“This was a vile and disgusting act that violates our guiding principles of ‘treating all with integrity, compassion, fairness and respect,’ Chief William McManus said in a prepared statement.”)

With shit sandwich featuring so prominently in the news, can an emoji be far behind?

Metaphorical mud. Mud as a euphemism for shit (which seems to date from roughly the middle of the 20th century: GDoS has cites from popular wordlists in 1972 and 1997) turns on physical similarity, in color and consistency; similar metaphorical uses of mud have it applying to opium, heroin, thick strong coffee — and chocolate, though there mostly in the culinary compound (Mississippi) mud pie (and, more recently, in the commercial Big Mississippi Mud Sandwich — yes, you can now buy mud sandwiches).

The Wikipedia article on Mississippi mud pie correctly characterizes it as a

chocolate-based dessert pie … The treat contains a gooey chocolate sauce on top of a crumbly chocolate crust. The pie is usually served with ice cream.

(#4) A very high-chocolate version of Mississippi Mud Pie, from Cook’s Country

Otherwise, the article speculates: the dessert

is likely to have originated in the U.S. state of Mississippi … While Mississippi mud pie was originally associated with Southern United States cuisine, the dish has gained somewhat of an international reputation, owing in large part to the sheer amount of chocolate in each serving.

The name “Mississippi mud pie” is derived from the dense cake which resembles the banks of the Mississippi River.

From OED3 (March 2003) on noun mud-pie [also mud pie]

1. A mass of mud or wet earth formed into the shape of a pie, esp. by a child; also fig. Cf. earlier dirt-pie n. [1st cite 1788]

2. A rich chocolate-based dessert likened to a mud pie in appearance (more fully Mississippi mud pie). [1st cite 1975, from Marshall Co. MS; then for just mud pie in 1981, Mississippi mud pie in 1990, and Mountain High Mud Pie in 2000]

Although the first cite for the dessert is from Mississippi, the connection to Mississippi — the state or the river, — is not at all clear. There’s a lot of detective work to be done here (and again, I point out that I don’t have the resources for such investigations).

Two things to bear in mind. First, the dirt-pie sense of mud pie has been around for over 200 years (see above) and has always been available for metaphorical extension to some sort of chocolate pie, without any connection to Mississippi.

And second, the alliterative compound Mississippi mud has been available as a formulaic expression since at least 1927 (see below) and so could be used as a playful elaboration of mud at any time, without imputing any actual association with Mississippi, or on the basis that the mud along the Mississippi river is imagined to be especially copious, dark, oozy, and so on: archetypical mud. Mississippi’s got muuud.

(Or, of course, both. Plus maybe a spur from the 1975 Marshall Co. MS bicentennial cookbook, with Mississippi mud pie in it so named as a bit of celebratory state puffery.)

Now, going beyond mud pie as a dessert, on to the mud sandwich I promised you: the “BIG Mississippi Mud® Sandwich” (official name) from Blue Bunny Ice Cream:

(#5) “Creamy chocolate reduced fat ice cream with thick rivers of fudge sauce layered between two rich chocolate wafers”

Yes, it’s an ice cream sandwich. With chocolate ice cream — mud — filling. No real connection to Mississippi, but if you say mud, lots of people think Mississippi.

Finally, on mud used for its dark color and thick consistency, with Mississippi coming along for the ride, there’s Mississippi Mud (very dark) Beer:

(#6) Made by the Mississippi Brewing Co. in Utica NY; ad, yes, there are alligators in Mississippi

Beat your feet in 1927. From Wikipedia:

(#7) Sheet music for “Mississippi Mud”; you can listen to the 1927 recording here

“Mississippi Mud” is a 1927 song written by Harry Barris, first sung by Bing Crosby as a member of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys.

The Rhythm Boys originally recorded the song on June 20, 1927 in New York for Victor as a medley with “I Left My Sugar Standing in the Rain.” It was recorded by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra on February 18, 1928 with vocals by Irene Taylor and The Rhythm Boys, featuring Bing Crosby, and with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet.

… The original lyrics featured a line in the refrain: “When the ‘darkies’ beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud”, using an expression [darkies] dating to the slavery years. This has since been revised to: “When the ‘people’ beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud.”

The first verse and the chorus, in the revised version:

When the sun goes down, the tide goes out,
The people gather ’round and they all begin to shout,
“Hey! Hey! Uncle Dud,
It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi Mud.
It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi Mud”.

What a dance do they do!
Lordy, how I’m tellin’ you
They don’t need no band
They keep time by clappin’ their hand
Just as happy as a cow chewin’ on a cud,
When the people beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud.

The song was a great hit amost immediately, and was covered by other artists. I’ve always found the happy prancing darkies (under any label) cringeworthy (– but then I’ve experienced a version in Stage Negro Dialect, with lines like:

When de sun go down, de tide go out

When de peepuh beat dey feet on de Mississippi Mud

(Fortunately, I never experienced a blackface performance of it. As a kid, I did see blackface numbers in vaudeville shows, just not this particular song. I do recall stage performances of “Dem Bones”, vividly.)

And now for something just slightly different. Up to this point, it’s been about mud, which led mostly to shit and to chocolate. Hence the title “Mud, shit, and chocolate” — which intentionally mimics tripartite formulas like “Blood, sweat and tears” (Winston Churchill) and “Truth, justice and the American Way” (from the Adventures of Superman radio show of the 1940s).

Now from mud to muddy, which will take us back to Vietnam in wartime (recall the Mark Liberman reminiscences about mud sandwich above) and then put us back in deep shit (without any chocolate).

Mud(dy) anthems. For mud, it was “Mississippi Mud”; for muddy, it’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”. From Wikipedia:

(#8) You can watch a Pete Seeger performance of the song here

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is a song written by Pete Seeger in 1967 and made famous because of its censorship from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The song tells the story of a platoon wading in a river in Louisiana on a practice patrol in 1942. Imperiously ignoring his sergeant’s concerns, the captain orders the platoon to continue with himself in the lead until they are finally up to their necks. Suddenly, the captain drowns and the sergeant instantly orders the unit to turn back to the original shore.

… The song was considered symbolic of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of escalation, then widely seen as pushing the United States deeper into the increasingly unpopular war.

Soldiers have waded in wartime through muddy rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps, rice paddies, and jungle streams through the ages. All the damn time in Vietnam:

(#9) “Soldiers Carry a Wounded Comrade Through a Swamp” (1969), photo from DOCSTeach (“the online tool for teaching with documents, from the National Archives”)

Waist deep in the Big Muddy was intended to convey a literal image, like the one  above, but also to be understood metaphorically, conveying the image of people enmired in unpleasant circumstances beyond their control. People in deep shit.

Another slang idiom from the Vietnam era. From GDoS:

deep shit (n.) (also deep ca-ca) a serious situation, a difficult problem; usu. as in deep shit. [1st cite] 1966 H.S. Thompson Hell’s Angels (1967) 27: We figured we were in deep shit until they told us bail was only eleven hundred dollars.

I started with derision over a public figure using a euphemism, mud sandwich, to avoid the obscenity of shit sandwich, and I’m going out with derision over a public figure using a euphemism, deep doo-doo, to avoid the obscenity of deep shit. That would be George H.W. Bush. From the NBC Today show on 11/3/88, Bryant Gumbel interviewing sharp-tongued Texas columnist Molly Ivins:

IVINS: Well, what hope is there for this year’s contenders [in the race for U.S. President]? Let’s take Bush first. We know him well enough to recognize his style. It’s classic American preppy, in the aging division. But there is a funny hitch to his get along: the twit factor. The goofy quality. Newsweek once observed, ‘at least once a day, George Bush achieves a moment of transcendent dorkiness.’ This usually happens when he’s trying too hard to be a regular fellow. Bush claims to be a Texan, because he rents a hotel room in Houston. But there are a few minimal requirements for Texan-hood. Real Texans do not use the word ‘summer’ as a verb. Real Texans never wear those blue slacks with the little green whales all over them. And real Texans never describe trouble as “deep doo-doo.”

And from political columnist Matt Wuerker (who now has a Page of his own on this blog):

(#10) Wuerker’s 1992 book

(Bush pére was 41, Clinton 42, Bush fils 43, Obama 44.)

One Response to “Mud, shit, and chocolate”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Decade ago, characters on “St. Elsewhere” said things like “Stop your whizzing and moaning” and “I don’t give a rat’s can”, both of which struck me as extremely silly; people who chose to not say “piss” or “ass” would have chosen different idioms. (Nowadays, you can get away with both of those, even on network TV, provided it’s late enough in the evening.)

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