In the 2016 US election campaign presidential candidate Gary Johnson was criticised for leaving office as Governor of New Mexico with a huge debt. His response was: “That is absolutely horseshit”. Watch the video below.
Johnson repeats the phrase, though notice that the second time he says absolute horseshit.
The clip made it on to the TV show Have I Got News For You here in the UK where Ian Hislop remarked that in the phrase absolutely horseshit the word horseshit is a noun being used as an adjective. Presumably his reason for saying this was that absolutely is an adverb, and adverbs can modify adjectives (as in absolutely crazy), but not normally nouns. My initial reaction was that he was wrong, because surely there is no way in which horseshit can be taken to be an adjective?
If you Google absolutely horseshit (or absolutely horse shit), or search the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/), you’ll find that the phrase is not unusual. Here are some more examples:
- For the love of sanity, the sheer weakness and size of it is just absolutely horse shit.
- He’s 33 and absolutely horse shit.
- The campsite was bollocks: Absolutely horse shit how they make you camp in designated areas.
My reason for thinking that Hislop was wrong was that I thought that the utterance That is absolutely horseshit is simply an alternative way of saying That absolutely is horseshit or Absolutely, that is horseshit. We find something similar here:
- I think that it is absolutely art in the same way that Michelangelo is art or Beethoven is art. (Compare: I absolutely think that…)
If this is correct, then absolutely is an adverb that behaves as expected and doesn’t modify the noun horseshit.
However, when I probed further, also found these examples:
- Ummmmm yeah, an absolutely horse shit team on the ice.
- Also think it’s a GENIUS idea to do things like ban supporters, people who pay money to the site, for 10 years, for absolutely horse shit reasons.
These examples show that horseshit, apart from being a noun, can also be an adjective, since in the examples above it is placed before a noun. So, Ian Hislop was right, except that I would prefer to say that in these examples horseshit is an adjective, rather than saying that it is a noun used as an adjective.
For the nerds among you, I also came across this example:
- One of many reasons the Wikipedia article is absolutely propagandist horseshit.
Which word class does horseshit belong to here? Well, it has to be a noun, because it is premodified by an adjective (propagandist). In turn the adverb absolutely then modifies this adjective. So the structure of the phrase is [NP [AdjP absolutely propagandist] horseshit].
PS Gary Johnson is also the man who was asked in an interview “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?”. His answer: “And what is Aleppo?”
PPS Paloma Núñez-Pertejo points out in her article ‘From degree adverb to response token: absolutely in Late Modern and Contemporary British and American English’ (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 114.2, 207-235) that combinations such as absolutely crap, shit, chaos, etc. are common in the language of teenagers.