you've got to be shitting me

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My 400-level Linguistics project. I decided to take a fun approach. Only in college can you use variations of the word 'shit' over 100 times in a paper and still get an A

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Kelsey StaubEnglish 442: Introduction to SyntaxConstruction Project4/15/12

You Have Got To Be Shitting Me!I. Introduction

If a person has spent an extensive amount of time in the United States, it is highly likely that they have heard the expression Are you shitting me? at one point or another. To the average American, this phrase is understood simply as a more colorful way of saying Are you kidding me? However, to those unfamiliar with the popular English language slang, this phrase could very easily be misconstrued and understood on the literal level, leaving them wondering why a person would ask them if they were defecating on them. According to Urban Dictionary (a popular online dictionary that defines words and phrases that exist primarily only as slang), the phrase Are you shitting me? is defined as:

A more extreme way of saying "Are you kidding me?" This phrase is commonly used to express doubt, surprise, and sometimes displeasure.

Teacher: You got 56% on the Math final. Student: Are you shitting me?

My favorite example of this construction, and my inspiration for writing this paper, is from the 2002 movie Sweet Home Alabama, starring Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas. Witherspoon played Melanie Carmichael; a former Southern Belle from Alabama who had migrated to New York City in her early 20s and in turn had abandoned her native casual Southern vernacular for the more proper East Coast dialect. Lucas played Jake Perry; Carmichaels childhood sweetheart turned ex-husband, who was portrayed as a Southern redneck, largely in partin large part due to his speech and grammar. In one particular scene, Witherspoons character approached her ex-husband about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, to which he replied, Youre shitting me, right? Carmichael, in turn, responded by saying, You know, Ive never actually understood that expression, but no, Im not shitting you. Comment by Kurt Queller: Interesting! Clearly, the scriptwriters are here playing on regional, class and gender differences (with the phrase being one device among others used to depict the Lucas character as a redneck.

Much like Carmichael, I too have never quite understood the semantic meaning behind this phrase. Due to my personal preference to refrain from using profanity in my daily vocabulary, I struggle with keeping track of the current slang terms associated with these bad words. For this reason, I have chosen to examine the semantic, as well as syntactic, constructions that attribute contribute to this popular idiomatic expression in the hopes of divulging the motivations behind the usage of the word shit in place of the more acceptable and appropriate words are traditionally used in these expressions. Particularly, I will examine in depth the meaning behind the construction Are you shitting me?

II. Definitions

In order to fully understand the meaning behind this particular construction, one must first be able to decipher the surprisingly vast amount of meanings that can be associated with the word shit. Shit is an unexpectedly versatile word, with a multitude of definitions ranging from being used as a noun, interjection, adjective (with both positive and negative meanings depending on context). It can also be used as a verb, both transitively and intransitively, with different meanings depending on the verb type and context.

The most common, and literal, definition of the noun shit, as defined by Dictionary.com, is simply excrement; feces (Shit def.1). Likewise, the literal definition of the verb to shit is an act of defecating (Shit def.2). However, because of its popularity in idiomatic expressions, shit has become a popular slang word used to describe a multitude of situations, with the definition of shit varying in each expression. For example, in the expression Im in deep shit, the word shit is used as another way of saying trouble. Likewise, the word shit is used in the expression I dont give a shit as a replacement for the word care. Shit is also commonly used as a synonym for good or cool when proceeded by the word the, as in This concert is the shit! Without the before it, shit becomes a negative adjective synonymous with bad, such as That concert was shit!

From an etymological standpoint, shit is a word with a word with an extensive history. As defined by the Online Etymological Dictionary:O.E. scitan, from P.Gmc. *skit-, from PIE *skheid- "split, divide, separate." Related to shed (v.) on the notion of "separation" from the body (cf. L. excrementum, from excernere "to separate"). It is thus a cousin to science and conscience. The noun is O.E. scitte "purging;" sense of "excrement" dates from 1580s, from the verb. Despite what you read in an e-mail, "shit" is not an acronym. The notion that it is a recent word may be because the word was taboo from c.1600 and rarely appeared in print (neither Shakespeare nor the KJV has it), and even in "vulgar" publications of the late 18c. It is disguised by dashes. It drew the wrath of censors as late as 1922 ("Ulysses" and "The Enormous Room"), scandalized magazine subscribers in 1957 (a Hemingway story in "Atlantic Monthly") and was omitted from some dictionaries as recently as 1970 ("Webster's New World"). Extensive slang usage; verb meaning "to lie, to tease" is from 1934; that of "to disrespect" is from 1903. Noun use for "obnoxious person" is since at least 1508; meaning "misfortune, trouble" is attested from 1937. Shat is a humorous past tense form, not etymological, first recorded 18c. Shite, now a jocular or slightly euphemistic variant, formerly a dialectal variant, reflects the vowel in the O.E. verb (cf. Ger. scheissen). Shit-faced "drunk" is 1960s student slang; shit list is from 1942. To not give a shit "not care" is from 1922; up shit creek "in trouble" is from 1937. To shit bricks be very frightened attested by 1961. The connection between fear and involuntary defecation has generated expressions since 14c., and probably also is behind scared shitless (1936). In this particular construction, the verb to shit is being used transitively in order to inquire about the validity of another persons actions. This form of the verb to shit is a colloquial synonym for the verb to deceive/lie. Therefore, the phrase Are you shitting me? is a more colorful way of saying, Are you attempting to deceive me with your statements and/or actions? The usage of the word shit in place of lie or deceive more than likely was derived from the word bullshit and the verb to bullshit. Like its shortened counterpart, bullshit can also be used in a multitude of ways, from an adjective (This cable bill is bullshit!), an interjection to express disagreement with something (Bullshit! I did not say that.), to a transitive verb (Are you bullshitting me?). However, unlike shit, bullshit is rarely used as a complimentary adjective. For example, one can say This pizza is the shit! but it would be incorrect to say This pizza is the bullshit!Comment by Kurt Queller: Good point (as you note, the verb to bullshit is used in precisely this sense!)

III. Construction

Ultimately, this Are you shitting me? construction is derived from the popular Are you ____ing me? construction. The basis of this construction is as follows:

BE verb (auxiliary) + Personal Pronoun (NP: Subject) + VT Present Participle + Personal Pronoun (NP: Direct Object)?

This Are you ____ing me? construction is an interrogative sentence consisting of the auxiliary BE verb Are, followed typically by a personal pronoun (in this case you). The main verb in this constructing in the transitive present participle progessive form are shitting, which is followed by a noun phrase consisting of a personal pronoun (or occasionally a proper noun) that functions as a direct object. Although Are you shitting me? is the most common usage of this construction, there are several variations that can be derived from this construction. For example, one could ask, Is Kelsey shitting you? or Is he shitting Kelsey. However, the use of a personal pronoun subject other than you is uncommon and very seldom used for this construction. This construction can be used interchangeably with a multitude of different verbs, typically in order to express surprise, disgust, or, in some contexts, excitement over an event or situation. For example, the most popular and widely accepted usage of this construction is Are you kidding me? However, one could also say Are you teasing me? or Are you joking me? (Although the latter example is technically not accepted as being grammatically correct). These expressions are often used rhetorically with no expectation of a response. Comment by Kurt Queller: Good point. (What seems to be their particular rhetorical function, in such cases?)

Unlike the verb to shit, the alternate verb to kid holds its same meaning in this construction regardless of if whether there is a direct object succeeding it or not. For example, the present participle kidding can be used intransitively (Are you kidding?) or transitively (Are you kidding me?). When kidding is used intransitively, the direct object is not necessary because the recipient of the verbs action is implied based on the meaning of the verb to kid. The verb to shit, on the other hand, must be used transitively and be followed by a direct object in order for this construction to maintain its idiomatic meaning. Although it is not grammatically incorrect, one cannot say Are you shitting? in place of Are you shitting me? for the purpose of this construction because the meaning of the verb to shit takes on its literal definition (to defecate) when it is used intransitively. In other words:Comment by Kurt Queller: Yes interesting pointComment by Kurt Queller: Yes and here we see an interesting CONTRAST with the (semantically closely related) verb bullshitting see for exampl