07/11/2012 06:34 EDT | Updated 09/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Serious About Getting Sh**-Faced

For me, forays into scatology are rare and I have never been very contemporary in my use of language. But I am stirred to a bit of slightly bawdy philology by an invitation from a convivial associate at Huffington Post for an occasion at which it was promised that we would all, and we were to be numerous, become congenially "shit-faced."

I naturally knew, even I, what the expression meant, and there are certainly times when such a condition can be amusing, and even times when it is necessary, to avoid spiking blood pressure, or in some people, acute shyness. But I wondered what would have caused the common and vastly described state of alcoholic drunkenness to be routinely formulated in a manner so redolent of complete dissolution, if not psychotic aberrance.

All experienced people are familiar with the condition, personally or as observers, but it tweaked my curiosity to find what had caused a state of intoxication to be generally put in terms so radically sociopathic that they implied an excretionary countenance. Somewhat similar references are made to those accused of such extreme sycophancy that they, (at least figuratively), make contact with the fecal eggressive orifice, or even to those who emerge felicitously, or at least humorously, from a tumble into accumulated ordure. But how even a black-out drunk could be described as shit-faced long escaped my comprehension.

There was a movement of U.S. northern Democrats in the last 30 years before the Civil War which, in the interests of preserving the Union, was prepared to endure almost any indignity from the slave-holding states in order to keep the Union together, and was called "dough-faces" because dough, placed on someone's face, would replicate its contours quite exactly and this was what these appeasers of the South were alleged to be in the habit of doing opposite the slave interest.

The schism between those who upheld slavery and even convinced themselves that it was an uplifting, generously paternalistic, and enlightened form of social organization, and those who thought it barbarous, immoral and unchristian for people to own other people, became wider and more ominous from the nullification and secession crisis of South Carolina in 1833 to the Mexican War in 1846-1848, to the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, (in which territories would have miniature civil wars before applying for statehood, to determine whether they sought admission as slave or free states), to the abominable Dred Scott decision of 1857 that effectively determined that even emancipated slaves had no rights.

After the agile wheelhorse James Knox Polk, president from 1845 to 1849, the presidents prior to Lincoln were all more or less dough-faces, (and Polk had had a dough-face vice president, George M. Dallas). They were men of indistinct position on slavery, who could keep alive the Democrats' pose to defend slavery in the South and masquerade as conservators of the Union in the North. But political chameleons are a long way from legless drunks, and James Buchanan and his ilk were fairly sober.

I did a little etymology, and of course the background to the key word of the description is ancient, extensive, and frequently very humorous. Chaucer wrote of an exotic Oriental snake that "shiteth precious stones" and I came across a treatise of 1641 in which a braggart was called a "cracking shit-fire." But the first descriptive fecal application to the face was from the late 1940's in Texas where World War II veterans sometimes apostrophized their colleagues as "Shit-face Charlie" or some such.

I taxed my commissioning editor who had used the description in her invitation, with the origins of the phrase and she put up a splendid smokescreen of impenetrable polysyllabalism. Thus, I was arraigned for "satisfied abliguration," for being a "balbucitating chadband," for deserting former "harbargeries" to become a "deipnosophist, a cromulent cunctipotent, a fainéant moriologist, percibrating" and provoking a mere "quatervois."

It was a formidable barrage but did not throw me off the track, which was warming perceptibly, and eventually, despite this billingsgate and dense school of magenta herrings, the true author of the phrase for whose origins I was searching emerged in that splendid, endomprphic, oddity of the most obscure days of the '50s, beat and Buddhist Alan Ginsberg, phrase-maker extraordinaire. He it was who screamed out a second story window at Norman Podhoretz, after Podhoretz had dissented from one of Ginsberg's and his friends' wackier political concepts: "We'll get you through your children!"

Ginsberg had resided for some time in England and became acquainted with the expression that someone who was thoroughly drunk was "arse-holed," an unsurprising lower class British comment consistent with that sociocultural echelon's reflexive recourse to the psychological default page of defecation, urination, and flatulence as metaphors for all activities and conditions; toilet humor as language, not even as humour.

The expression meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that someone was so disoriented from drink his head could be in his rectum, with predictable complexional consequences. Ginsberg is credited, not the least of his poetic legacy, though possibly not the greatest either, with the Americanization of the phrase to the usage described.

I apologize to those readers who look forward to a sober, if not, I hope, stiff, treatment of a serious subject in this space. My curiosity was seriously tickled and I thought, in Monty Pythonese, "something altogether different" might work. My commissioning editor who started all this, when advised of my subject a few minutes ago, inquired if that described my condition, and I have assured her that I am as sober as a parson, and as facially unblemished and pure of thought as a cygnet.