Shick-Shack and Shit-Sack

By Smith, J. B. | Folklore, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Shick-Shack and Shit-Sack


Smith, J. B., Folklore


Reviewing Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun in a recent issue of Folklore, Malcolm Jones reminds us that 29 May, Shickshack Day, better known as Royal Oak Day or Oak-Apple Day from its association with Charles II's concealment in an oak after his defeat at Worcester in 1651, most probably gets its name from the word "shit-sack" (Hutton 1997; Jones 1997, 139). This was originally a term of abuse applied to Nonconformists and others not wearing the loyal sprig of oak or oak-apple on that day. Whether or not euphemism, or just linguistic wear and tear, has been responsible for diverting "shit-sack" from its original form and meaning, these have been persistently disregarded, as has an anecdote purporting to explain the appellation (Smith 1998). A version of this anecdote is to be found, for instance, in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, following the headword Sh-t Sack and its definition as "A dastardly fellow: also a non-conformist" (Grose 1981, n.p.). Grose's ultimate source for the anecdote must be Granger's Biographical History, which dates back to the third quarter of the eighteenth century and explains the name Sh-t Sacks as having its origin in the reign of Charles II as follows:

   As the laws, in this reign, were very severe against all religious
   assemblies which were not of the established church, the Nonconformists
   sometimes met in very obscure places in the country. There is a tradition,
   that a congregation of Protestant Dissenters were assembled in a barn,
   which frequently harboured beggars and other vagrants: and that the
   preacher, for want of a ladder or a tub, was suspended in a sack affixed to
   a beam. He preached that day upon the last judgement, and towards the close
   of his sermon, entered upon a description of the terrors of that tribunal.
   He had no sooner mentioned the "sounding of the trumpet," than a strolling
   mimic-trumpeter who lay concealed in the straw, began to exert himself. The
   congregation, struck with the utmost consternation, fled in an instant from
   the place; and left the affrighted preacher to shift for himself. The
   effects of his fright are said to have appeared at the bottom of the sack;
   and to have occasioned that opprobrious appellation by which the
   Nonconformists were vulgarly distinguished. This idle story, which was
   communicated by a Dissenting minister, was propagated throughout the
   kingdom, in the reign of Charles II (Granger 1775, 3:316-17 and 4:index,
   "Sh-t Sacks," n.p.).

Many have dismissed this explanation of the term "shit-sack" as fanciful, irrelevant, or offensive. So it may be, but that does not diminish its significance, not only as a symptom of its times, but also as a piece of folk-narrative, under which rubric it can hardly be classified as other than a jocular tale. Especially common among jocular tales are, of course, stories about parsons and congregations; and there is one particular tale-type, "Application of the Sermon," in which the words of a preacher are taken literally by a naive listener. Thus in one sub-type the parson asks from the pulpit: "Where shall we place the Prophet Ezekiel?" to which an old man in the congregation inappropriately responds: "He can have my place; I'm going home" (Baughman 1966, 48: Type 1833A).

The sub-type which is of interest for present purposes is, however, that in which the preacher says: "Let Gabriel blow his horn!" At this, a boy hidden in the loft blows a trumpet, causing preacher and congregation to scatter. According to Stith Thompson and Ernest Baughman, only two examples of this sub-type exist, both of them from the USA, one from New York and the other from Kentucky (Aarne and Thompson 1973, 503; Baughman 1966, 49: Type 1833J). The Kentucky version bears the title "Gabriel's Horn" and runs as follows:

   An old Negro man once went out hunting, and he took his little boy along to
   carry the lantern and their fox horn. … 

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