Are we there yet?
Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “the pits.” My friend is moving to Pittsburgh and I am wondering if there is any relation (though I doubt it). — Dustin.
Well, let’s not be hasty. Have you ever actually been to Pittsburgh? Just kidding. It’s a lovely city. There’s an Ikea store there, and the locals call bologna “jumbo.” What’s not to like? The only bad experience I’ve ever had in Pittsburgh was many years ago, when I was taking a Greyhound bus from Ohio to New York City. First the driver got lost in Zanesville, then he clipped a telephone pole in West Virginia, and finally he drove us into a deserted garage in downtown Pittsburgh at 3 a.m., dismounted the bus, and disappeared for good. Sometimes I suspect that I’m still sitting on that bus and all the rest of this has been a hallucination. It would explain a lot.
Meanwhile, back at your question, no, “the pits” does not refer to Pittsburgh. For one thing, “the pits” as slang for the very worst, the most degraded and depressing example of something, first appeared in common usage only in the 1950s, and if Pittsburgh were all that bad the phrase would have shown up a lot sooner.
“Pit” itself is a very old word, derived from the Old English “pytt,” meaning “water hole,” and rooted ultimately in the Latin “puteus,” meaning “well or pit.” From the general sense of “hole in the ground,” our modern “pit” has developed a wide range of specialized uses, from the deepest part of a mine (as in “coal pit”) to an especially foul mood (“pit of depression”). The reprehensible practice of putting various animals in pits in the ground and forcing them to fight has given us both the name of “pit bull” dogs and the “cockpit” of aircraft, so-named because it is considered as cramped as the pits used for staging fights between chickens. Some modern uses of “pit” have completely lost their original “lower level” sense, such as the “trading pit” on the floor of a stock exchange, the gaming area of casinos, and the “pit” area at the side of racetracks, which takes its name from the sunken area of a garage that allows mechanic to work on the underside of cars.
The use of “the pits” to mean the worst and most unpleasant instance of something, however, has its source a bit closer to home. “Pits” in this sense is simply short for “armpits,” long considered an unpleasantly aromatic region of the human body. From originally meaning literally “stinky armpits,” the phrase broadened to describe anything that metaphorically stinks. As American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, explained in 1965, “This is a slang abbreviation of the term armpits, … with an extension of meaning to entail the idea of body odor (‘He’s got the pits’) or, more broadly, something unpleasant (‘It [the party] was really the pits’).