Connie Eble’s annual list of catchphrases that she compiles from her students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill included a new entry in 1983: “Shit happens.”
An unnamed female student wrote the phrase on an index card in Eble's English class, apparently inspired by a someone who had flunked a test. “That shit happens,” he said, according The Daily Tarheel.
That index card would become the first published use of the phrase, according to 2006’s Yale Book of Quotations.
The phrase has become ingrained in American culture, helped along by music, movies (Forrest Gump, among others), and books (hundreds have some variation of the phrase as a title.)
Eble, though, seems bemused to be forever tied to it.
“Will this never die?” Eble tells The Daily Tarheel. “I didn’t come up with it—it just so happened that my list was the earliest citation. And now it’s become sort of an urban myth.”
The 1980s, it turns out, were a boon for the first written record of several now-common phrases, all suggesting a certain ennui, as Louis Menand wrote in a review of the Yale Book of Quotations for The New Yorker:
It is extremely interesting to know, for instance, that the phrase “Shit happens” was introduced to print by one Connie Eble, in a publication identified as “UNC–CH Slang” (presumably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), in 1983. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” a closely related reflection, dates from 1982, the year it appeared in the Washington Post. “Been there, done that” entered the public discourse in 1983, via the Union Recorder, a publication out of the University of Sydney. “Get a life”: the Washington Post, 1983. (What is it about the nineteen-eighties, anyway?) “Size doesn’t matter,” a phrase, or at least a hope, that would seem to have been around since the Pleistocene, did not see print until 1989, rather late in the history of the species, when it appeared in the Boston Globe.
According to IMDB, “shit happens” has been used at least 60 times in their movie quote database, though that probably vastly understates its real use in film.
The earliest recorded by IMDB was in 1989’s Order of the Eagle, a B-movie about a teen Eagle Scout who “accidentally discovers the lost plans for America's Star Wars missile defense program.” Two years later, it appears in the 1991 classic Point Break.
“When they fall on you, you won't back down and they'll have to burn your ass to the ground,” Keanu Reeves, who plays the hero Johnny Utah, tells Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, who replies with:
Probably the most famous use of the phrase was in 1994’s Forrest Gump, which implies that Forrest was the originator of the phrase. While running across America, a man in the “bumper sticker business” asks Forrest for a new slogan. Just then Forrest steps into a pile of feces.
“Man, you just ran through a big pile of dog shit!” The man says.
“It happens,” Forrest replies.