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Shoe Polish: A Folk Insult?

Posted By smit217@usc.edu On May 8, 2018 @ 12:39 am In Folk speech,Humor | Comments Disabled

You don’t know shit from Shinola.

According to the Informant, he heard this phrase growing up from his father. It was typically said by Person A in situations in which Person B doesn’t know what’s going on or for general naivety. It’s not exactly a proverb, because it ridicules those without wisdom instead of imparting wisdom. It can be said to be a folk insult. He said he heard this insult so many times, but it took until about the millionth time for him to realize that yes, it was true. He hadn’t the slightest clue what Shinola was.

This folk insult reportedly originated as commander-to-soldier vulgarity during WWII. The original form of the phrase involved a second verse. In the 1940’s, when is started popping up in military barracks, the full-length piece stated: “You don’t know shit from Shinola, and that’s why your shoes don’t shine.” This oicotype clearly allows anyone, using context clues, to decipher that Shinola is brown shoe polish. It’s interesting that the actual product named Shinola is long-gone, but it lives on in an insult.

It turns out that many insults without authors come from the military. “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” is another example of the same category that can be traced back to the military. Once we know the meaning behind the parts, it’s easy to see the meaning of the whole. Shinola would obviously be the choice pick over shit to shine shoes. Only a truly naïve person would use the two interchangeably.

This phrase always gets a smile out of me, regardless of context. This can possibly be regarded as the Informant’s catch phrase. In a way, it’s a passed-down insult, from my father’s father, that the majority of people today would be clueless to understand the meaning of. This fact, for a phrase meant to mock a person’s naivety, is just the icing on the cake.

 


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URL to article: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=40102