Sunday, May 16, 2021

When "batshit" just won't suffice.


Metropolitan Museum of Art

     Molly Jong-Fast first registered on my radar about a decade ago, when collecting quotes for "Out of the Wreck I Rise," the literary companion to recovery I was writing with Sara Bader. Jong-Fast had told the New York Times something typically concise and piquant about secrecy and recovery that fit right into our chapter about Alcoholics Anonymous.
     "It seems crazy that we can't just be out with it, in this day and age,"she said. "I don't want to have to hide my sobriety; it's the best thing about me."
     After the book came out, we started to occasionally communicate through Twitter. I saw her as a Manhattan wit ("loud, arch and snappishly funny" as the Guardian recently described her), heir to Dorothy Parker. I called her a couple times, when I needed a particularly incisive quote. She never let me down.
     Then Jong-Fast upped her game by joining forces with The Lincoln Project folks, a band of Republicans who never got the memo about the entire party groveling before the great orange godling, and decided to resist the liar, bully, fraud and traitor, no matter how completely their confreres submitted. After COVID locked everyone down, Jong-Fast started a Tuesday and Friday podcast with Rick Wilson, "The New Abnormal," which I recommend highly. It allows me to generally ignore the endless jaw-dropping mouse shriek of the post-Jan. 6, 2021 Republican Party, and instead keep tabs indirectly on important developments via the podcast, at a remove, second hand, filtered through smart, humane people who condense the ocean of bile and deliver it to me in significant drops. The New Abnormal is like the special smoked goggles used to view a solar eclipse: a way to contemplate a fiery phenomenon without burning your retinae or going blind.
     One challenge facing Jong-Fast as she boldly considers the current political hellscape is that it beggars language. If "crazy" seems apt to her when describing a culture where people are embarrassed to admit they're in recovery, what word could she use to talk about Marjorie Taylor Greene? "Crazy" still fits, but it also seems a little inadequate without some kind of intensifier, and one of Jong-Fast's favorites is "batshit." "Batshit crazy"—she used the phrase three or four times in a single program last week.
     Which got me pondering about how Chiroptera guano got associated with madness. Etymology, like the GOP, is a nexus for mistaken amateurism, and online there is a common theory that "batshit" somehow devolved from the "bats in the belfry," an early 20th century trope to jocularly refer to lunacy.
     That strikes me as fanciful. Even "batty" only refers to batlike qualities in my Oxford English Dictionary. I would sooner lump "batshit" in with other "-shit" terms: apeshit, bullshit, chickenshit, horseshit. "Batshit," like much evocative slang, is thought to stem from the military. There's a wink at it in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 with the character "Col. 'Bat' Guano."
     As with "apeshit," (or the current GOP, for that matter) in its original usage, the "crazy" is implied. "Most of America's males were in Korea or World War II or I. They killed, and they aren't all going batshit," Lt. 
William Calley is quoted saying in the 1971 "Lieutenant Calley."
     I found the term as far back as the Fall, 1953 Carolina Quarterly, of all places, in Gabriel Boney's "Epiphany in E Flat." "A coarse voice answered sharply, 'Batshit!'"
     So "batshit crazy" is really a pleonasm—using more words than necessary, for effect. Like "cash money" or "tuna fish." So when did the redundancy, "batshit crazy," begin to be used? It seems to be a creature of the mid-1980s. I found it in the 1985 novel "Night Moves," by Walter Jon Williams:

     "I thought Harvey, the guy who was helping me, was batshit crazy."

      For an even older usage, all I have to do is look at the wall in my office closet, at a cartoon that I've long admired by P.S. Mueller that ran in The Chicago Reader in 1983. 
     "Full blown batshit crazy and still holding down a productive job." It spoke to me (and thanks to Jim Mueller, Pete Mueller's brother, a long ago regular reader who got me a signed print). 
     Allow me to offer Mueller's "full blown batshit crazy" as my thank-you gift to Molly Jong-Fast, to tuck away for when things in our country go from bad to worse, as they very well might. In a few years, when Matt Gaetz becomes the 2024 Republican nominee for president and Evangelicals guiltlessly dance around golden idols of Donald Trump, beating timbrels and buffing it with their long hair, when "batshit crazy" begins to seem, well, tepid, she'll be able to remember this and deploy the more powerful "full blown batshit crazy." What a sad day that will be.



  1. Wow! Neil, I had that same comic from the Chicago Reader on my dorm room door for a couple of years after cutting it out of the Reader. It really struck a nerve with me for some reason. I still have it in storage....somewhere. Makes me want to dig it out. I'm jealous that you have a personal, signed version.

  2. Their ads might have been great. But all they did was make themselves a lot of money.

  3. That comic was essential to my '80s cubicle decor. Here's PS Mueller on how he came up with it:

    As for the "batshit" origin story, let give some credit Batman and the "bat" prefix of Batmobile and batarang fame. Chronologically, it fits, with the last original Batman TV episode airing the same week as Lt. Calley & company's Mỹ Lai massacre.

    1. I must respectfully disagree with my learned colleague kgander (Wow... remember when members of Congress referred to each other that way?) regarding a connection between Batman and batshit. That series hung a "Bat-" prefix on everything, I think originally to denote some Bruce Wayne-inspired upgrade or modification of an everyday object, but later perhaps as a little in-joke acknowledging that they had pretty much renamed everything in sight that way. Regardless, the prefix in that context was meant to suggest an upgrade or improvement, not craziness.

      My vote is for the bats-in-the-belfry origin. One late-1900s example I haven't seen mentioned here yet is cartoonist Jeff MacNelly's take on a shambling, slightly addled Tip O'Neill, who was Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987, and who was portrayed in MacNelly's "Shoe" comic strip as an overweight, blowhard eagle named Sen. Batson D. Belfry.

  4. Apeshit, batshit, bullshit, chickenshit, horseshit...I've had feline companions for the last forty years, and I still recall a line I read decades ago (mid-Eighties), about those early 40s Brooklyn Dodger teams that were managed by Leo Durocher:

    "When they walked out onto the field, they were as mean as catshit."

    Seems like an appropriate moment to pass that one along...and to add it to the list. I've never forgotten it.


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