You can't polish a turd

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James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
I first heard the expression in the British film "The History Boys". I had never heard it before. Would you say it is common? I would not have thought so.

The meaning is clear: No matter how hard you try, a turd is a turd - you cannot change the nature of things (or people). In the movie, it is used (by the crusty headmaster) about a pupil he deems useless ( = no matter how hard you try, as a teacher, he will fail). (In the end, the pupil in question does well in the exams.)

This website links it to Kubrik and the writer of the web page attributes its 'invention' to someone having worked with Kubrik, the film-maker, if I understand correctly:

http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=Kubrick polishes a turd

Kubrik would have retorted:


"And then Kubrick looked at me and said, "'You can if you freeze it.'"
 
  • liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    I've heard it. I wouldn't say it's common, but frankly the only reason I don't use it more often is a lack of appropriate situations. I think it's a great expression.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    It shows that the common people are in a majority - on Google too. Seriously, it is easier to memorize than the elaborate "silk purse" and "sow's ear" one. And, when you live in town, you come across turds (on the pavement) every day - they are familiar. You can't say the same of "sow's ears" (or sows for that matter).
     

    daviesri

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I've heard the "sows ear" quote, but never the "polish a turd" one. You learn something new everyday.

    Enter "silk purse out of a sows ear" in Google and you get 47,100. Seems that there are several slight modifocations to the beginning of the quote.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    If you just search for "silk purse sow's ear", you get 189,000 hits, because the exact phrasing may vary:
    You can't make a silk purse of a sow's ear.
    You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.
    You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
    and so on...
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I have to say that it's one of the most common expressions I hear around songwriters when talking about a song that just isn't working, so I've heard it a lot, sometimes about my own work, unfortunately. :)

    The language is a little on the salty side. I can imagine it on a factory floor, for example, but not in a demonstration for company executives, at least not without "feeling out the room" first. It could be offensive to some people in some situations. I wouldn't use it when talking to my parents, for example, but I'd have no qualms about using it with a fellow songwriter.

    The silk purse, sow's ear expression is probably the most common general-purpose way to express this opinion.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Interesting response because it appears to be very familiar to some people and common in certain circles, yet unheard of elsewhere - both in the US and the UK. I have a feeling it is more BE than AE. There is no doubt that it is colloquial and could shock certain people, particular the more 'proper' and sophisticated kind.

    In the film, 'The history boys', the headmaster using the expression is a little bit old-fashioned, haughty and abrupt - the kind who speaks his mind and does not care if he is going to offend a few people along the way... Very un-PC. The movie is supposed to take place in the early 80s or late 70s, in England, when PC thinking was not as entrenched in education as it is today.

    In the UK, today, the official credo in education is indeed that you can polish turds and turn them into gold - so long as the turd looks like gold, it is good enough for all concerned. In fact, there are no turds any more - only interesting individuals with a lot of potential. :D
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Interesting response because it appears to be very familiar to some people and common in certain circles, yet unheard of elsewhere - both in the US and the UK. I have a feeling it is more BE than AE. There is no doubt that it is colloquial and could shock certain people, particular the more 'proper' and sophisticated kind.
    I don't know why you would think it was more BE. I find over 58,000 hits for "polish a turd" in Google, and only 750 on UK-only sites.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I was just about to open a new thread when I remembered 'Search this forum' ...

    I don't believe I'd heard this expression until very recently (the last couple of months). Now it seems that every time I turn the TV on, I hear someone use it. (And every time I hear it, I laugh out loud.) It has inevitably entered my active vocabulary.

    It's not listed in my Cassell Dictionary of Slang (2000).

    I have heard the lipstick on a pig one before, though.
     

    pickarooney

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    I always assumed this was an American expression. In fact, I always assumed 'turd' was an American word as I'd only heard it used by USians until recently.
    "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shite" is a less-used alternative.
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    I've heard the "sows ear" quote, but never the "polish a turd" one. You learn something new everyday.

    Enter "silk purse out of a sows ear" in Google and you get 47,100. Seems that there are several slight modifocations to the beginning of the quote.
    Actually, if you enter the phrase without the apostrophe 's', you get 985 hits in Google, not the 47,100 for "sow's". An interesting way to find out how the poor old apostrophe is doing these days.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    'You can't polish a turd' may be American in origin, but I have heard it in a British-English context, and I feel it is not rarely used in the UK. As I indicated in my initial post, it is used in a British film on education (= no matter how hard you try, a useless, uncouth youngster will remain a useless, uncouth youngster). (The character in the film using the expression is, as you would expect from the context given, a teacher 'of the old school'...)
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    I see no reason to suppose that the word turd is more AE or more BE, it seems to be used on both sides of the pond (and apparently in Australia too). It's from Old English and apparently dates back to before the 12th Century.
    I've seen the phrase "you can't polish a turd" attributed to US President Harry S. Truman, which may be one of it's most famous usages but it may not have been original even then.
     
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    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    The Oxford Concise Dictionary says 'turd' comes from Old English 'tord', from Old German. No mention of America or American English. 'Turd' does not sound like recent slang, but rather more like ancient slang. Before America as we know it existed, that is.

    As for the polishing of turds and the fact it is possible or not (maybe if you let them dry long enough, then have a go) - God knows. Even if possible, I don't think it would be easy or pleasant, which takes us back to the original use of the phrase in that film: it cannot be done, and, if it can be done, who would want to even attempt it? :D Politically correct and idealistic educationalists is the answer. To each his own specialism.
     
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    Ann O'Rack

    Senior Member
    UK
    UK English
    If you were to dry it you could possibly varnish it and then apply polish, so I suppose it might be possible, ;) though I do prefer the "silk purse/sow's ear" for polite conversation.

    Even though people might not generally talk about sows otherwise, it's an expression that gets the meaning across without potential offence.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Once upon a time, long after turds were invented, there was a question. It was about the commonality of a picturesque saying.
    I had never heard it before. Would you say it is common? I would not have thought so.
    No, I wouldn't say it is common. More common are sow's purses, silken body parts, or the reverse, or anything using the formula, "You can't make a XXXXXXX out of a YYYYYY".

    1) You can't make a spitball out of a Hippotamus!*
    2) You can't make a mashed potato out of a rock.
    3) You can't make a racehorse out of a jackass.

    etc.









    *Answer to child's joke: Q: What's the difference between a hippopotamus and a piece of paper?
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Once upon a time, there was also the idea that, if you came across additional evidence, and as a conversation progressed, you were allowed to change your mind, and feel that, perhaps, what you had thought was uncommon, was in fact pretty commonly used and widely known.

    Quotes can cut both ways, true.

    Having said all this, this Thread started a long while ago, so I believe one is allowed a change of perception along this long, hard road. :)

    Clearly, this expression is not to be used in polite conversation. Hence its undeniable appeal. :D
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    This site claims it is a saying of Persian origin. No supporting evidence is provided, damp, dry, freeze-dried, or oiled.

    http://www.worldofquotes.com/proverb/Persian/2/index.html

    The Phrase Finder, a reputable site, suggests it is a UK expression, but again, neither oil nor freezers are visible. Just anecdotal—and perhaps reliable—evidence.
    Polishing Turds

    Posted by Arthur Dent on May 07, 2004
    This is an expression (polishing turds) used mostly in the Software Industry in the UK and means to make a piece of poorly written and virtually unfixable software appear to function by giving it a smart user interface. I could mention a well know operating system which is a prime example of where this technique has been used but they might sue me so I'll keep stum.
    Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/31/messages/461.html
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    I have never once heard this expression in (Dublin) Ireland, it sounds more AE to me - I didn't even know turd was used in BE until reading this thread.
    Once upon a time, there was also the idea that, if you came across additional evidence, and as a conversation progressed, you were allowed to change your mind, and feel that, perhaps, what you had thought was uncommon, was in fact pretty commonly used and widely known.

    Having said all this, this Thread started a long while ago, so I believe one is allowed a change of perception along this long, hard road. :)
    James Brandon said:
    I first heard the expression in the British film "The History Boys". I had never heard it before.
    Certainly there is no restraint on changing one's mind as a result of exposure to persuasive evidence. It would be a BAD THING not to accept such evidence and thus have a change of opinion. But where is the bucketload of evidence that has led one to begin by thinking that the expression is uncommon, and end up two years later thinking it

    a) commonly used

    and

    b) widely known ?


    I don't dispute that it is widely known, at least among some members of this forum community, some of whom may have gone in search of information about it since reading post #1. Is that also an indication that it is commonly used? Just what does "commonly used" mean to us? Is that a term we read or hear once a week or daily?
    Is it something we come across as little as one time each month?

    I wonder who among us has seen or heard this expression weekly or monthly since the beginning of this discussion two years ago. I certainly have not. It is known to me now, as it was then. I don't believe it is commonly used among the writers I read (a very broad-ranging bunch) or those I hear talking. Google presents fewer than 1000 citations, many of them duplicates, and projects from that to some 3 million uses. Google projections are subject to severe doubt. Yahoo search project a much smaller number, also open to question: "
    991 - 1000 of 174,000 for "you can't polish a turd" (About) "
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I can say, as anecdotal evidence, that I have heard it in business meetings, in casual office talk, in presentations about songwriting at an arts conference, and on television on one of those "make me a supermodel" shows (which I thought was very rude).

    I wouldn't expect to see it in writing as much as I would expect to hear it in conversation. I can't say it's a daily or weekly occurrence but when this is the concept that is being expressed ("you can't make something that is fundamentally inferior into something acceptable no matter how much you pretty it up") it does seem to be the most common phrase to express that thought, in my daily experience.

    I've also heard it used as "the more I worked on it, the more I realized I was just polishing a turd."
     
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    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Because I posted up the Thread and started it, clearly, I was not sure what the answer to the question might be. If I had known or had a clear idea, I would not have posted up the query in the first place.

    Initially, I thought it cannot be that common, since I had never heard it, and have been exposed to a fair amount of language over the years - including the good, the bad, and the ugly. But I am weak enough to recognise that my own personal experience may only account for something like 0.0000000005 % of the global English-language 'experience'.

    Having said all this, this is not nuclear physics and is largely subjective. Is the expression common or not? Some people appear to have heard it rarely (including myself, in fact); others appear to be familiar with it, including in the USA (see what James M has to say). On balance, I get the impression that, whatever its origin, it is not that rare.

    For what it is worth and, once more, this is not scientific, I was surprised to find that, on GOOGLE UK, if I do a search for the expression, I get:-

    You cannot polish a turd = 111 000 entries
    You can't polish a turd = 83 900 entries

    PS This is the UK version of Google since we know that they are not the same in every country...

    Admittedly, some of those entries relate to actual polishing of faeces or related hobbies, such as the Japanese technique for polishing mud. (Now, we have learnt something about unusual pastimes: Turd-Polishing Clubs could be all the rage in Outer Mongolia, for all I know...)

    PPS Google keeps on throwing up different stats. I have re-done the search, and the number of entries is lower... I have updated it above. It would point towards an expression that is not uncommon, but not that common either: 80,000 to 110,000 entries is not huge, even if it is not insignificant. But it could be more common in speaking than in informal writing, be it on line or in print...
     
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    pickarooney

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    I will come clean and state that I had never heard this expression, nor the expression 'that sucks' until I watched Beavis and Butthead in 1993. Since then, I have heard and used both hundreds if not thousands of times (mainly in Dublin, for the record).

    I believe MTV's crudely-drawn mental midgets have, for me and many of my peers, been more educational in terms of vocabulary than Tolstoy, Joyce and Eco combined.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Regarding the frequency of use of the idiom, it is - also - clear that, the more it is discussed, also on the web, and also on forums such as this one, the more currency the expression is given, and the more exposure it is given. After a while, clearly, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the expression will become common, sooner or later! (This is where the work carried out by the - amateur - researcher has a direct impact on the object of his or her research, as often in sociology: if an anthropologist spends 5 years living among the members of a hitherto unknown - to the outside world - community in the middle of the jungle somewhere, the said community is no longer unknown by the end of the process...)

    Many idiomatic expressions, nowadays, no doubt, become popular on the back of their use in TV soap operas, or pop songs, etc.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    Given that people will only use the expression as often as they wish to express the idea, perhaps the question should be:
    "Is it as commonly heard as the equivalent expression "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"?"
    I would contend that "you can't polish a turd" is more commonly used and widely known in modern English. As someone pointed out previously, most people rarely come into contact with silk purses and sow's ears these days, indeed I suspect that many people would not know what a sow is. Turds (if not polish) on the other hand are daily occurences (assuming regular bowel movements). Talk of "silk purses" and "sow's ears" seems to belong to another era, whereas attempting to polish a turd is a much more accessible (if unpleasant) image. It's also funnier.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    ...
    For what it is worth and, once more, this is not scientific, I was surprised to find that, on GOOGLE UK, if I do a search for the expression, I get:-

    You cannot polish a turd = 111 000 entries
    You can't polish a turd = 83 900 entries

    PS This is the UK version of Google since we know that they are not the same in every country...
    Google Alarm!

    You need to put quotation marks around the search terms if you want Google to report on the phrase as a whole. Otherwise it reports based on sites containing those words in any order in any location.

    So:
    You cannot polish a turd = 870 entries
    You can't polish a turd = 26,700 entries
     

    fhcustoms

    New Member
    English - American
    I first heard this in the 1983 movie Christine, based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King. It is typical of the pithy, if somewhat vulgar, homespun wisdom that older men like to dispense.

    In the movie, a character is disparaging the title car, as being a turd, and the owners desire to restore it, as being a waste of time.

    Even if you could polish a turd, as the Mythbusters apparently proved you could, the end result is no more than a shiny piece of excrement.
     

    Wayland

    Banned
    English.
    My father was in the mining industry in the 40s onwards and we lived in Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire/South Yorkshire and had to learn dozens of different northern languages (sadly these days being lost) each time we moved.
    I was in the forces from the late 50s to the early 80s.
    I supply this background information to say that I am conversant with a goodly lot of earthy English expressions.
    I have never heard the "polish a turd" saying until I read it on this thread.
     

    Sashinky

    Member
    English
    I've heard it several times, and it goes down a treat in sophisticated circles.
    As for the ear-purse thing I've never encountered that - and would have trouble respecting anyone that said it to me.

    One cannot polish a poo.
     
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    SwissPete

    Senior Member
    Français (CH), AE (California)
    I had not heard the expression until a few months ago.

    By the way, there is a slight different version:

    :warning:
    - What do you get when you polish a turd?
    - A shiny piece of shit.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Regarding frequency of use as assessed on Google, you are right, Panj, that you need to use quotation marks to make sure the exact expression is "mined", or, alternatively, use the advanced search function in Google ("exact expression").

    I may have got mixed up in my totals, but yours confirm, whichever way, that the expression is reasonably common - according to Google at any rate - if not widely used (and see what contributors have indicated).

    If you do "can't polish a turd", you get 30,400 references.
     

    Hyper Squirrel

    Member
    English - American
    I've heard 'You can't polish a turd' many times but never heard the sow's ear variation until now. I suppose your location depends on which version you know, if either.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    This Thread is about the 'polish a turd' idiom, but there is no doubt that the 'make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' would be a very old expression.

    Then again, this does not mean that it would be commonly used or known today, since the expression is a bit complex by today's standards (for a start, who talks about 'sows' in everyday life, apart from pig farmers, I wonder...).

    Having said all this, I believe anybody would understand the 'silk purse' expression in the UK, today. Obviously, this is a subjective comment, not based on objective factual evidence I would have.
     

    djmc

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    I have never heard the expression about turds although its meaning is obvious, however I have heard the expression about a sow's ear and indeed I use it myself. I would have thought that turds would be thought to be intrinsically disgusting which is not the case for sows ears which do have their uses but not for making silk purses.
     
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    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I would not have thought sows' ears would be appealing to most people... Anything to do with pigs, in Western European culture, is generally regarded as filthy and inferior - even though the pork is generally consumed in vast quantities... The contrast of course is between the ear (of a pig) and a purse (made of silk). In the "turd" expression, the contrast is more between the action of polishing (as if you polished brass or silver) and the material you are trying to "improve" (i.e. faeces)...
     
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