Word Virus

On Going Apeshit

“Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” Beyoncé asks rhetorically, on the lead single that she and Jay-Z surprise-released last week, from their first collaborative album as The Carters. Sure. Who hasn’t? Later, she inverts the question, replacing ‘crowd’ with ‘stage,’ invoking the legendary madness of her live performances: if the audience was left wondering, Beyoncé gives a demonstration of “going apeshit” near the end of the video, violently shimmying and shaking in a flowing white gown, before the Nike of Samothrace, the winged but headless sculpture depicting the Greek goddess of victory. “She went crazy!” Jay-Z hollers during the breakdown, confirming firsthand just how apeshit Beyoncé is apt to go.

Most of us have an idea of what going apeshit means. But where did the term come from?

“Apeshit” was first officially observed in 1955 by the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech, as United States Air Force slang, meaning to “react in an irrational manner; go into a frenzy.” Apeshit appears again in Donald J. Plantz’s 1962 WWII pulp fiction novel, Sweeney Squadron: “If Captain Christiansen goes to base hospital,” Plantz writes, “I’m riding next to this ape-shit bastard.” In the October 1976 issue of the British magazine New Society, an article on contemporary youth notes: “The kids go ‘ape-shit’ — leaping high off the ground, as if on invisible pogo-sticks.” The OED defines apeshit in a July 2009 update as coarse slang for “crazed, infuriated, excited; mad, insane.”

Indeed, as evidenced most recently by the Carters’ be-bopping and scatting, we are living in the age of apeshit.

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the vernacular use of the word apeshit has increased exponentially since the mid-1970s. The TV producer David Chase eulogized The Sopranos star James Gandolfini at his funeral in New York City in 2013, regaling mourners with a story of how the actor unloaded his frustrations on set: “The cameras rolled, and you opened the refrigerator door, and you slammed it really hard,” recalled Chase. “You slammed it hard enough that it came open again. And so then you slammed it again, then it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator.”

Donald J. Trump has been known to go apeshit, too. Quoting Jeff Landry, former Trump campaign aide and current Attorney General of Louisiana, Douglas McGrath writes in a January 2016 article in The New Yorker: “You have to answer just right, or he goes apeshit.”

If there is one adjective that can accurately describe the US president’s hair-trigger actions and reactions, it is most assuredly apeshit. “Trump Went Apeshit Anti-Science This Week,” trumpets a headline on the blog Autostraddle: “Let’s Fight Back.” In response to his comments about “shithole countries,” a group of online vigilantes began trolling the Yelp pages for Trump’s hotels and properties around the world, detailing just how shitty they are. Vice noted of the comments: “people are going apeshit, and getting personal.”

Other instances of shit-talk are on the rise as well. In a May 2017 interview with MSNBC, the political strategist Rick Wilson’s tongue slipped on live television: “They’re afraid of the mean tweet,” said Wilson, of the president’s adversaries: “They’re afraid of Donald Trump going crazy, you know, ripshit bonkers on them.” That comment spawned a Slate article about the regional etymology and sense of “ripshit” by the lexicographer Ben Zimmer, in which he cites Kory Stamper’s Strong Language blogpost from 2014, entitled “Add -shit and stir: The intensifying affixal -shit.” “The way things are going,” asserts Zimmer, “I think we need as many words for intensified craziness as we can possibly get.” Even word nerds are going apeshit right now.

Yet, apeshit is distinct from other forms of shit — say, batshit, which also implies a sort of loose-cannon insanity, or chicken-shit, meaning cowardly. Like cat shit or rat shit, exposure to batshit can literally make a person go crazy.

To me, apeshit has a more combative connotation than batshit or ripshit, dipshit or jack-shit. We might imagine an ape actually throwing its shit, as apes are wont to do to visitors of zoos the globe over. Apeshit is arguably the craziest of all shits — it also, importantly, is black shit, and implicitly, the shit of desperate, caged animals. Which is why it’s so remarkable in the context of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s song: presumably, the crowd goes apeshit because of a momentary liberation and delightful respite from disenfranchisement; the Carters go apeshit for precisely the opposite reason: no matter how much wealth or status Bey and Jay accumulate, or how much pleasure they derive from their creative work, they are at once emancipated and enslaved by the trappings of fame and fortune.

Still, there is something encouraging about apeshit. I am perennially reminded of what Slavoj Žižek wrote in his 1991 tome Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture: “When we become crazed in our obsession with idiotic enjoyment,” says Žižek, “even totalitarian manipulation cannot reach us.”

Perhaps apeshit is the operative mode proper to our current cultural moment — to do to art, music, literature, politics, society, what Tony Soprano did to that refrigerator door. Going apeshit is the idiotic enjoyment enabling not only sovereignty from structures and systems of oppression, but also the simple, fundamental freedom from having to give a shit.