How did the phrase "built like a brick shithouse" get to be a compliment? Are today's PCs more powerful than the legendary supercomputers of the 1970s?

July 4, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Where did the phrase "built like a brick shithouse" originate? How can it possibly be considered a compliment?

You wouldn't ask this question if you'd ever really listened to a man try to compliment a woman. ("Of course I like your outfit, honey. It really de-emphasizes your butt.") But you have a point. When one contemplates the comely female form, "brick shithouse" is not the first phrase that springs to mind.

For a broader perspective I consulted what is surely the definitive treatment of the subject, The Vanishing American Outhouse by Ronald S. Barlow (1989). This unpretentious volume has everything you'd want to know about outhouses and then some. (Sample: "State of Maine outhouses are among the sturdiest ever built," accompanied by a photo of a particularly handsome albeit nonbrick example. Something for the New England tourism bureau to think about now that New Hampshire has lost the Old Man of the Mountain.)

The book includes photos of privies constructed using a wide range of materials, including clapboard (by far the commonest), plywood, stucco, concrete, cedar shakes, logs, corrugated tin, scrap lumber, and of course brick. The brick shithouses are generally pretty impressive architecturally, but not even the most obtuse male is likely to see the spitting image of his lady love therein--not unless she's got a physique like a defensive lineman. They are, however, well built, especially in contrast to the flimsy wooden variety, and it's strictly in this narrow sense that the phrase is usually applied to a woman. (To quote the relevant Commodores tune: "The lady's stacked and that's a fact.")

You may think: I've heard of people being deaf to secondary associations, but this takes the cake. Well, no. The guy who first used "built like a brick shithouse" to describe a woman with a nice figure wasn't thickheaded, just a smart-ass. From the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang we learn that: (a) the phrase and its euphemistic variants date back at least to 1903; (b) said variants replace "shithouse" with switch shanty, schoolhouse, slaughterhouse, or backhouse, among others; and (c) all were originally--and more sensibly--applied to men of solid or powerful build. When said of women, one 1938 source notes, the phrase usually meant a "heavy, cloddish, sexually unappetizing female." But even in the 1930s a few wiseguys were applying it to attractive women, and in the U.S. that usage has now supplanted all others.

But not everywhere. In Australia and the UK, at least, "built like a brick shithouse" still most commonly refers to well-built men. Therefore be advised to use caution in tossing this phrase about whilst abroad; you may be taking your life in your hands.

Dear Cecil:

The PC I am using right now would be considered pretty typical today. It has a 1 GHz 32-bit processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a hard disk of several GB. I suppose that at some point in the past, a computer this powerful would have been considered a supercomputer. The question is, how far back? Is my current computer more powerful than what nuclear scientists and NASA were using in the early 70s? Or am I trying to compare apples and oranges? --Rafael Garcia, Philadelphia

Cecil replies:

Apples and oranges? Probably, but as a demonstration of the march of progress the explosion of computing speed since the 1960s is hard to beat. The power of a supercomputer is commonly measured in "flops," which stands for floating point operations per second. The Cray-1, the most famous early supercomputer (the first model was installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976), was capable of 133 megaflops (133 million flops). Early versions weighed over five tons, had a clock speed of 80 MHz, featured the equivalent of 8 MB of RAM, and cost about $9 million. In 1985 the Cray-2 was introduced, which could do 1.9 gigaflops (1.9 billion flops), operated at 244 MHz, had the equivalent of 2GB of RAM, and cost about $12 million. For comparison, a typical PC bought in 2000 or 2001 uses a Pentium 4 processor with a clock speed of 1.5 GHz, benchmarks at around 1.8 Gflops, probably cost under $2,000, and fits under your desk. In short, it's the rough equivalent of a 1985 supercomputer for one-six thousandth the cost.

Don't get smug. Your PC can accomplish only a pitiful fraction of what today's supercomputers can do. The current record holder is the Earth Simulator ultra-high-speed parallel vector computer installed at the Earth Simulator Center in Yokohama, Japan: it's tested at 35.86 teraflops (35.86 trillion flops) and has 10 TB (terabytes) of main memory. As has been true of cutting-edge computers for the past 60 years, the thing is huge, filling not just a room but a building. Whether its performance will be matched 15 years hence by something you can buy for $900 at Wal-Mart remains to be seen. But Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel and originator in 1965 of Moore's Law (current formulation: computer power per square inch of microchip doubles every 18 months), says we won't haul up against the laws of physics, or at least the limits of wafer technology, until 2017.

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