I’m not really sure how it all started, but last night another foreign teacher decided to teach some of the Chinese English teachers the phrase “you are the shit”. I think they had asked her to teach them some slang and this must have been the first thing that popped into her mind.
Explaining slang is always a bit tricky. “Isn’t “shit” a bad word?” they asked. Yeah, we said, if you just say “shit”, but when you add the “the” then it becomes like a complement. Confusion on their faces. The definite article changes an insult into a complement. Really? Yeah, we reassure them. It’s like saying that they are the best, the coolest. Two teachers turn to each other and simultaneously say “You are the shit” with completely deadpan faces. I laugh. They titter, looking slightly troubled, like they think we are pulling their leg.
Already running ahead with the implications of this discovery, another teacher asks if we can say “you are a shit.” Indefinite vs. definite article. I laugh again, but they really want to know the answer. I explain that if you used ‘a’ then it would be an insult. So if you wanted to insult someone you could call them a “piece of shit.” Maybe we could say “you are a piece a shit,” but that normally we would leave off the article altogether. I can’t believe I am talking about grammar in the context of swearing and insulting. But those articles make all the difference, don’t they?
“So,” they ask, “if you say “you are the shit” it’s a complement, but if you say “you are shit” or “you are a piece of shit” or “you piece of shit” then it’s an insult?” Correct, we affirm. The phrase “you little shit” is tugging at my mind, but I think they’ve had enough examples already. I sit back as they experiment with alternately complementing and insulting each other, laughing when they get them confused. Their faces are priceless.