Ask An Editor: What's a 'sad sack?'
In which a professional book editor explains the World War Two origins of this famous American idiom to English as a Second Language students
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to start reposting them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On April 17th, 2021, redditor ScallionAlive6430 asked:
What's a sad sack?
A sad sack is a bit dumb and a bit pathetic. He gets pushed around a lot, by both the people in his life and the world in general.
It's hard to like a sad sack, because they largely accept this bullying passively, never sticking up for themselves. They're always kind of mopey and have largely given up on their goals and dreams (if they ever had any), which makes them unpleasant to be around, even though they're not actively mean or cruel.
The term was invented by American soldiers during World War Two, originally as “a sad sack of shit.” Not an idiom — they literally are comparing the person to a bag of feces. (These are the same soldiers who gave us “fubar” [“fucked up beyond all recognition”], “snafu” [“situation normal, all fucked up”], and “illegitimi non carborundum” [fake Latin for “don't let the bastards get you down.”]) Like all these phrases, “sad sack of shit” got cleaned up when the soldiers came home and were around their wives and children again, and it eventually became a regular part of 1950s conversational English. You don't hear it very often anymore, but many people will at least know what you're talking about if you say it, and Americans middle-aged or older will also remember the briefly famous comic book of the same name.
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