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Bullshit stamp on the desk of a street photographer

Bullshit (also bullshite or bullcrap) is a common English expletive which may be shortened to the euphemism bull or the initialism B.S. In British English, "bollocks" is a comparable expletive. It is mostly a slang term and a profanity which means "nonsense", especially as a rebuke in response to communication or actions viewed as deceptive, misleading, disingenuous, unfair or false. As with many expletives, the term can be used as an interjection, or as many other parts of speech, and can carry a wide variety of meanings. A person who excels at communicating nonsense on a given subject is sometimes referred to as a "bullshit artist" instead of a "liar".[1]

In philosophy and psychology of cognition the term "bullshit" is sometimes used to specifically refer to statements produced without particular concern for truth, clarity, or meaning, distinguishing "bullshit" from a deliberate, manipulative lie intended to subvert the truth.[2] In business and management, guidance for comprehending, recognizing, acting on and preventing bullshit, are proposed for stifling the production and spread of this form of misrepresentation in the workplace, media and society.[3] Within organizations bullshitting is considered to be a social practice that people engage with to become part of a speech community, to get things done in that community, and to reinforce their identity.[4] Research has also produced the Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale (OBPS) that reveals three factors of organizational bullshit (regard for truth, the boss, and bullshit language) that can be used to gauge perceptions of the extent of organizational bullshit that exists in a workplace.[5]

The word is generally used in a depreciatory sense, but it may imply a measure of respect for language skills or frivolity, among various other benign usages. In philosophy, Harry Frankfurt, among others, analyzed the concept of bullshit as related to, but distinct from, lying;[6] the liar tells untruth, the bullshitter aims to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true—it may be.[7]

As an exclamation, "Bullshit!" conveys a measure of dissatisfaction with something or someone, but this usage need not be a comment on the truth of the matter.


"Bull", meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century, while the term "bullshit" has been used as early as 1915 in British[8] and American[9] slang and came into popular usage only during World War II. The word "bull" itself may have derived from the Old French bole, meaning "fraud, deceit".[9] The term "horseshit" is a near synonym. An occasionally used South African English equivalent, though more common in Australian slang, is "bull dust".

Although there is no confirmed etymological connection, these older meanings are synonymous with the modern expression "bull", generally considered and used as a contraction of "bullshit".

Another proposal, according to the lexicographer Eric Partridge, is that the term was popularized by the Australian and New Zealand troops from about 1916 arriving at the front during World War I. Partridge claims that the British commanding officers placed emphasis on bull; that is, attention to appearances, even when it was a hindrance to waging war. The Diggers allegedly ridiculed the British by calling it bullshit.[10]

In the philosophy of truth and rhetoric

Assertions of fact

"Bullshit" is commonly used to describe statements made by people concerned with the response of the audience rather than with truth and accuracy. On one prominent occasion, the word itself was part of a controversial advertisement. During the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, the Citizens Party candidate Barry Commoner ran a radio advertisement that began with an actor exclaiming: "Bullshit! Carter, Reagan and Anderson, it's all bullshit!" NBC refused to run the advertisement because of its use of the expletive, but Commoner's campaign successfully appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to allow the advertisement to run unedited.[11]

Harry Frankfurt's concept

In his essay On Bullshit (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The "bullshitter", on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking "to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak":[12][13]

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Frankfurt connects this analysis of bullshit with Ludwig Wittgenstein's disdain of "non-sense" talk and with the popular concept of a "bull session", in which speakers may try out unusual views without commitment. He fixes the blame for the prevalence of "bullshit" in modern society upon the (at that time) growing influence of postmodernism and anti-realism in academia[12] as well as situations in which people are expected to speak or have opinions without appropriate knowledge of the subject matter.

In his 2006 follow-up book, On Truth, Frankfurt clarified and updated his definition of bullshitters:[12]

My claim was that bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all. Instead, and most essentially, they are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions and the attitudes of those to whom they speak. What they care about primarily, therefore, is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation. Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false. (p. 3-4)

Several political commentators have noted that Frankfurt's concept of bullshit provides insights into political campaigns.[14] Gerald Cohen, in "Deeper into Bullshit", contrasted the kind of "bullshit" Frankfurt describes with a type he referred to as "unclarifiable unclarity" (i.e., nonsensical discourse presented as coherent and sincere but is incapable of being meaningful). Cohen points out that this sort of bullshit can be produced either accidentally or deliberately, but is especially prevalent in academia (what he calls "academic bullshit"). According to Cohen, a sincere person might be disposed to produce a large amount of nonsense unintentionally or be deceived by and innocently repeat a piece of bullshit without intent to deceive others. However, he defined "aim-bullshitters" as those who intentionally produce "unclarifiable unclarity" (i.e., Cohen-bullshit) in situations "when they have reason to want what they say to be unintelligible, for example, in order to impress, or in order to give spurious support to a claim" (p. 133).[15]

Cohen gives the example of Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries" as a piece of deliberate bullshit (i.e., "aim-bullshitting"). Indeed, Sokal's aim in creating it was to show that the "postmodernist" editors who accepted his paper for publication could not distinguish nonsense from sense, and thereby by implication that their field was "bullshit".

David Graeber's theory of bullshit work in the modern economy

Anthropologist David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory argues the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs. He contends that over half of societal work is pointless, which becomes psychologically destructive.[16]

Education and reasoning as immunization against bullshit

Brandolini's law, also known as the "bullshit asymmetry principle", holds that "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than what’s needed to produce it". This truism highlights that while the battle against misinformation more generally must be fought "face to face", the larger war against belief in misinformation won’t be won without prevention. Once people are set in their ways, beliefs are notoriously hard to change. Building immunity against false beliefs in the first place is the more effective long-term strategy.[6][17]

Almost 20 years before Dr. Frankfurt, NYU professor Neil Postman gave a talk entitled "Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection" at the 1969 National Convention for Teachers of English in Washington DC. He started by telling his audience that "helping kids to activate their crap-detectors should take precedence over any other legitimate educational aim".

University of Washington biologist Carl Bergstrom and professor Jevin West began a college course on "Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World".[18] They then launched the Calling Bullshit website and published a book with the same title.

As an object of psychological research

Although attempts had been made in the past to examine bullshit and bullshitting from a scientific perspective,[19] it did not gain attention among cognitive scientists as a legitimate area of research until 2015 when Dr. Gordon Pennycook (still a graduate student at that time) and his colleagues at University of Waterloo developed the "Bullshit Receptivity Scale" (BSR), a questionnaire designed to quantify receptivity to a particular kind of bullshit that they called "pseudo-profound bullshit".[6] The development of the BSR led to Pennycook and his colleagues winning the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize (for Peace).

Further research from Wake Forest University psychologists found evidence to support Frankfurt's notion that a person is more likely to engage in bullshitting when they feel a social pressure to provide an opinion and perceive that they will be given a social “pass” to get away with it.[20] Indeed, some have theorized that social media offers a prime environment for bullshitting as it combines the social pressure to offer one's opinions on a wide variety of topics along with an anonymity that arguably provides a social “pass”. According to researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast (2008): “along with a pervasive and balkanized social media ecosystem and high internet immersion, public life provides abundant opportunities to bullshit and lie on a scale we could have scarcely credited 30 years ago”.[21]

More recently, researchers have identified a type of Dunning-Kruger Effect for bullshit receptivity called the "bullshit blind spot."[22] The researchers found that those who were the worst at detecting bullshit were not only grossly overconfident in their BS detection abilities but also believed that they were better at detecting it than the average person (i.e., they have a bullshit blind spot). Conversely, those who were the best at detecting bullshit were not only underconfident in their abilities, they also believed they were somewhat worse at detecting it than the average person. The researchers referred to this underconfidence bias among the high performers as "bullshit blindsight."[23]

Given that much of the early scientific work on bullshit focused on those more likely to fall for it (i.e., the "bullshittees"), some researchers have turned their attention to examining those more likely to produce it (i.e., the "bullshitters"). For example, in 2021, a research team at the University of Waterloo developed the "Bullshitting Frequency Scale" (BSF) which measures two types of bullshitting: "persuasive" and "evasive".[24] They defined "persuasive bullshitting" as a rhetorical strategy intended to impress, persuade, or otherwise fit in with others by bullshitting about one's knowledge, ideas, attitudes, skills, or competence. "Evasive bullshitting" refers to an evasive rhetorical strategy in which one provides "non-relevant truths" in response to inquiries when direct answers could result in reputational harm for oneself or others.[25]

Building on these findings, the researchers also tested the familiar adage that “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter”. To do so, they explored associations between scores on the Bullshitting Frequency Scale (BSF) and performance on measures of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, pseudoscientific bullshit, and fake news. They found that higher scores of "persuasive bullshitting" positively predicted scores for all three types of "bullshit receptivity". In other words, those who are most likely to persuasively bullshit others are in turn more likely to believe persuasive bullshit, suggesting that you can indeed bullshit a bullshitter after all.[26][27]

In everyday language

Outside of the academic world, among natural speakers of North American English, as an interjection or adjective, bullshit conveys general displeasure, an objection to, or points to unfairness within, some state of affairs. With this colloquial usage of "bullshit", which began in the 20th century, "bullshit" does not give a truth score to another's discourse. It simply labels something that the speaker does not like and feels he is unable to change.[28]

In the colloquial English of the Boston, Massachusetts area, "bullshit" can be used as an adjective to communicate that one is angry or upset, for example, "I was wicked bullshit after someone parked in my spot".[29]

In popular culture

  • The Showtime TV series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! debunks many common beliefs and often criticizes specific people's comments. Penn Jillette stated the name was chosen because you could be sued for saying someone is a liar, but not if you said they were talking bullshit.
  • A running joke in the Channel 4 series The Last Leg is that the host, Adam Hills, has a series of "bullshit buttons" on his desk that are pressed whenever an appropriate event occurs. Upon doing so, the speaker system will play the word "bullshit".[30] These are normally programmed with the voices of celebrity guests,[31] except for the "People's Bullshit Button", which is programmed with the collective voices of a past audience.[32]
  • Wooden versions of the Trammel of Archimedes are sold as novelty items under the name of bullshit grinders.
  • The American sportswear company NoBull references this phrase in its name.

See also



  1. ^ Heer, Jeet (2015-12-01). "Donald Trump Is Not a Liar". The New Republic. Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  2. ^ "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit", Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, Jonathan A. Fugelsang. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563.
  3. ^ McCarthy, Ian P.; Hannah, David; Pitt, Leyland F.; McCarthy, Jane M. (2020-05-01). "Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit". Business Horizons. 63 (3): 253–263. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2020.01.001. ISSN 0007-6813. S2CID 214037079.
  4. ^ Spicer, André (4 June 2020). "Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations". Organization Theory. 1 (2). doi:10.1177/2631787720929704.
  5. ^ Ferreira, Caitlin; Hannah, David; McCarthy, Ian; Pitt, Leyland; Ferguson, Sarah Lord (3 December 2020). "This Place Is Full of It: Towards an Organizational Bullshit Perception Scale". Psychological Reports. 125 (1): 448–463. doi:10.1177/0033294120978162. PMID 33269982. S2CID 227260056.
  6. ^ a b c Pierre, Joe (February 2020). "The Psychology of Bullshit". Psychology Today. Sussex Publishing. Retrieved March 31, 2022.
  7. ^ Frankfurt, Harry G. (30 January 2005). On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691122946. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  8. ^ Concise Oxford English Dictionary[clarification needed]
  9. ^ a b "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2011-11-12.
  10. ^ Peter Hartcher (2012-11-06). "US looks Down Under to stop poll rot". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
  11. ^ Paul Siegel (2007). Communication Law in America. Paul Siegel. pp. 507–508. ISBN 978-0-7425-5387-3.
  12. ^ a b c Frankfurt, Harry (2006). On Truth. Knopf. ISBN 9780307264220.
  13. ^ "Harry Frankfurt on bullshit". Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2013-11-05.
  14. ^ Shafer, Jack (December 24, 2015), "The Limits of Fact-Checking", Politico Magazine, retrieved 10 January 2016
  15. ^ Cohen, G. A. (2002). "Deeper into Bullshit". Originally appeared in Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. Reprinted in Hardcastle and Reich, Bullshit and Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), ISBN 0-8126-9611-5.
  16. ^ Graeber, David (2018-05-15). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (1st ed.). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-4331-1.
  17. ^ MacMillan, Thomas (June 26, 2017). "A Beginner's Guide to Calling BS". New York Magazine, The Cut. VOX Media, LLC. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
  18. ^ McWilliams, James (2019-04-17). "'Calling bullshit': the college class on how not to be duped by the news". the Guardian. Retrieved 2023-02-06.
  19. ^ Mears, Daniel P. (2002). "The Ubiquity, Functions, and Contexts of Bullshitting". Journal of Mundane Behavior. 3 (2): 233–256.
  20. ^ Petrocelli, John V. (2018). "Antecedents of bullshitting". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 76: 249–258. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.03.004.
  21. ^ MacKenzie, A (February 2020). "Lies, bullshit and fake news: some epistemological concerns". Postdigital Science and Education. 2: 9–13. doi:10.1007/s42438-018-0025-4. S2CID 158148106.
  22. ^ Littrell, Shane; Fugelsang, Jonathan A. (2021). "Bullshit blind spots: the roles of miscalibration and information processing in bullshit detection". Thinking and Reasoning. 30: 49–78. doi:10.1080/13546783.2023.2189163. S2CID 257553913.
  23. ^ Kara-Yakoubian, Mane (31 May 2023). "New study reveals the bullshit blind spot". Psypost - Psychology News. Retrieved May 31, 2023.
  24. ^ Littrell, Shane; Risko, Evan F.; Fugelsang, Jonathan A. (2021). "The Bullshitting Frequency Scale: Development and psychometric properties". British Journal of Social Psychology. 60 (1): 248–270. doi:10.1111/bjso.12379. PMID 32304103. S2CID 215809136.
  25. ^ Kara-Yakoubian, Mane (16 December 2021). "New study suggests you can bullshit some bullshitters". Psypost - Psychology News. Retrieved December 16, 2021.
  26. ^ Littrell, Shane; Risko, Evan F.; Fugelsang, Jonathan A. (2021). "You can't bullshit a bullshitter (or can you?): Bullshitting frequency predicts receptivity to various types of misleading information". British Journal of Social Psychology. 60 (4): 1484–1505. doi:10.1111/bjso.12447. PMID 33538011. S2CID 231805408.
  27. ^ Pierre, Joe. "Can You Bullshit a Bullshitter?". Psychology Today. Sussex Publishing. Retrieved March 31, 2022.
  28. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, "Bullshit". This entry gives a cross-reference to the definition of "Bull", 4.3: "Trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense."
  29. ^ "Bullshit". Universal Hub.
  30. ^ "'Our humour gets very dark, very fast': The Last Leg presenters on busting disability taboos". the Guardian. 2021-08-24. Retrieved 2022-08-24.
  31. ^ Mhairi Black's New Bullsh*t Buzzer – The Last Leg, retrieved 2022-08-24.
  32. ^ We're Gonna Need a Bigger B*llshit Button – The Last Leg, retrieved 2022-08-24.


Further reading

External links

  • Quotations related to Bullshit at Wikiquote
  • The dictionary definition of bullshit at Wiktionary