USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘folk insult’
Folk speech

Shoe Polish: A Folk Insult?

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.


Folk speech

You Don’t Know Shit from Shinola

  1. The main piece: Shinola (Proverbial Insult)

“You don’t know shit from Shinola.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Etc.

“My grandpa used to say it to my dad, and my dad said it to me. He said one day my dad said something, and he said, ‘You know what, you don’t know shit from Shinola.’

“Shinola is brown shoe polish. So it’s the same color as shit. So no one knows shit from Shinola.”

  1. The context of the performance

It’s a proverbial insult that members of his family used to say when the informant was growing up. He said that “it doesn’t impart wisdom, it’s saying that you have none.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Insults and teasing are often a way of developing close relationships and building rapport. This joking insult passed from grandfather to father to son shows the teasing nature of their relationships and the lighthearted attitudes in their families. This proverbial insult also provides a way for elder members of the family to reprimand children when they become overconfident or misspeak: while it clearly puts them in their place, they know that it is a “tough-love,” teasing phrase and are not too wounded by the insult. It also may show that the insulter does not view the insultee as mature or old enough yet.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is a 22 year old American male and grew up in Tiburon, where he spent lots of time with his father and grandfather, as well as the other kids in his tight-knit neighborhood. His primary language is English, and he currently resides in Los Angeles.

Folk speech




Years ago (in 2007 ish) the Defense of the Ancients (Dota) community and Heroes of Newerth (HON) community were at odds because it’s essentially the same game. Players knew that one would eventually triumph over the other as the popular game of the genre and the loser would be discontinued—like a fight for survival. Dota eventually won and HON players switched over, so “hontrash” became an insult for people who switched over. Eventually the community moved on from insulting that group of players, and the phrase instead shifted its meaning to become an insult targeting anyone who demonstrated a clear lack of skill in the game.

Informant & Context:

My informant for this piece is a member of the Dota community who has been active since approximately 2007 during the time at which this phrase occurred. He was exposed to this folk speech in online matches in which players around him used the phrase to insult others.


I became active in the Dota community around fall of 2012 and have never witnessed this insult in my time as part of the community. As a result, I would reason that the lifespan of this folk speech was a band of time in-between 2007 and 2012.

Insults in the online gaming community are quite common at the non-professional level. I would reason that this is an affordance of the nature of anonymity with the games—each player speaks from behind a computer screen.

Folk speech

Noob Origins


N00b and nub are corruptions of “noob”, itself a corruption of “newb”, short for “newbie”. “Newbie” was in use at least as far back as the BBS era of the 1980s and early 1990s, where it referred to a user who was new to BBSs. It was less of an insult and more friendly than “noob”, which was popularized by Counterstrike players in a context where a poor player can ruin the game for others.

Newbie itself is modern slang, where according to Wikipedia it referred to new soldiers in Vietnam. The word’s origin before this is unclear, but it appears to be a word created to turn the adjective “new” into a noun, perhaps as a diminutive (Barbara -> Barbie, for example).


Informant & Context:

My informant is a commenter on the website Stack Exchange, who goes by the username Joe Dovakhiin, a popular message board website in the online gaming community. The comment was in response to a forum question about the origins of the word Noob. I believe the comment was legitimized by the more than twelve thousand thumbs ups it received by other forum users.

Link to forum:



This is one of the most classic or conventional gaming insults in my opinion. It is a phrase that has continued to be used throughout my lifetime, and has a life span almost as large as the video game industry itself. This phrase is especially interested because it has maintained popularity in the entire gaming community whereas other phrases have gone in and out of style like fads.