Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one and read about the story that almost didn’t happen. Then join me and Alan as we take a look at why garbage, trash, dustbins, and even rubbish are becoming, well, so much rubbish!
JANE: Leaving the interior of the house, let’s move on to the larger containers used to collect all of the household waste material (other than recyclables, which is another matter entirely). Here, these are often called “garbage cans” or sometimes “trash cans.” This is the sort of thing I always envisioned when reading British novels and encountering the term “rubbish bin.”
ALAN: That’s right. You may also have come across the term “dustbin” as well. It means the same thing. In my childhood, the men who emptied these bins were known as “dustbin men.” One verse of an interminably long skipping song from my youth goes:
Sam, Sam the dustbin man
Washed his face in a frying pan,
Combed his hair with a donkey’s tail
And scratched his belly with his big toe nail
No, before you ask, I have no idea what any of that means!
JANE: If I had to guess, I’d say that Sam was a very untidy fellow…
Here the use of the word “garbage” seems to be falling into disfavor. The plastic bags sold to line cans so that wet waste will not drip used to be called “garbage bags” or “trash bags.” However, I have noticed that the idea that these bags are involved with waste in any capacity is vanishing. The ones I have now are simple called “kitchen bags,” as if we are too dainty to mention why we need bags in our kitchens.
ALAN: We don’t line our recycle bins with anything. Paper and cardboard doesn’t leak and we are expected to wash the plastic containers before disposing of them. Kitchen waste etc. (the stuff you refer to as garbage) has to be put into special bright yellow, biodegradable bags that you buy from the supermarket. They are known as council rubbish bags. Any garbage that isn’t in a council rubbish bag will not be collected.
JANE: Do you put these “council rubbish bags” out loose or do they go into a container ofsome sort? Here everything must be put into a container, initially to keep animals (like roaming dogs and coyotes) from ripping them open and making a mess. More recently because “solid waste” is now collected by great big trucks driven by people who rarely, if ever, get out of their vehicles, the bins are crucial because the enormous trucks have enormous claws on them that pick up the bins.
I’m wondering because, if the bags went into a container, how would they know if you had the right ones or not?
ALAN: We put the bags out loose. They rarely get investigated by animals – it’s illegal for dogs to roam unaccompanied, cats would never lower themselves to do anything as undignified as ripping open a rubbish bag, and we have no wild animals that would be interested.
JANE: Dogs aren’t supposed to roam unaccompanied, but it still happens. I have coyotes in my neighborhood. I live very close to open spaces that provide the coyote with a nice natural habitat. They then commute down the concrete arroyo to the local golf course to hunt rabbits and geese.
Returning to garbage, even the grindy thing beneath my kitchen sink has undergone a name change. They used to be called “garbage disposals.” Now they are often called “waste disposal units.”
Clearly, Americans are distancing themselves from squishy realities.
ALAN: We just call them food waste disposal units, or just waste disposals. They are also sometimes referred to as “insinkerators”, but that’s actually a brand name that is starting to enter the language, rather like “hoover” and “xerox”.
JANE: Hey! The one in my kitchen is an “Insinkerator”! However, the brand name has not become “generic” here.
In the olden days, when furnaces were swept out and the ash put in special cans, these were called “ash cans.” When I was a kid, sometimes you encountered an older person who referred to “garbage cans” as “ash cans,” confusing the young to no end. I have often thought the use of the term “trash can” came from the “sound alike” element, much as “Bridezilla” references “Godzilla.” (See my WW for 6-26-13 if you want more on bridezilla and other neologisms).
ALAN: I vaguely remember my father using “ash can” for the thing he used to get rid of the ashes from our household fires. But open fires (and even solid fuel burning heaters) are now falling greatly out of favour for environmental reasons and I haven’t heard the term in years. However a little bird tells me that not only do you know a Lone Ranger joke, you also know an ash can joke. So come on, don’t leave me in suspense.
JANE: Right. Roger Zelazny told me this one, I think because he’d used the term “ash can” and I’d looked puzzled.
A boy asks a friend how he might earn some extra money. The friend suggests that the boy go into business emptying ash cans, then selling the contents. That way the boy could collect money both for the collection and the resale. The boy thinks this is a good idea and, equipping himself with a wagon, goes down the street yelling: “Get your ashes hauled!”
Do you understand why that’s supposed to be funny?
ALAN: No, I don’t.
JANE: Getting your ashes hauled was slang for visiting a prostitute, so, effectively the boy was advertising himself for sale. Roger thought this very funny. I, however, had to have the phrase explained to me, somewhat ruining the joke. Humor is so dependent on time and place…
ALAN: Still, that’s nicely put! We don’t have that phrase, but I rather wish we did. It’s very colourful. I did once hear someone talk about visiting a prostitute to “get his pipes flushed out” which I think is equally colourful, but it too is not in common use.
JANE: A good bit of earthy language, certainly. As we’ve developed this Tangent, I’ve been thinking about how we Americans certainly know the word “rubbish” but don’t use it much anymore.
Oddly, one place the word “rubbish” gets used commonly is in the phrase, “That’s a lot of rubbish,” meaning “nonsense,” but the word “garbage” or “trash” would never be substituted. “Trash talking,” in fact, has a completely different meaning.
ALAN: Yes, we’d use “rubbish” to mean “nonsense” in exactly the same way. I’m not sure we’d ever use “garbage” or “trash” though. Again, I am only familiar with the words from reading American novels. But what’s “Trash Talking”? I’ve heard the phrase, but I really don’t know what it means.
JANE: Hmm… “Trash talking” or “talking trash” means to boast or brag. There’s a sense of showing off and intimidation in it. When I first heard the term, the associations were of tough guys hanging out on street corners and, well, talking trash. Lately, it seems to have migrated into sports and other competitive arenas.
ALAN: I’m not sure that we have a word for that. Perhaps we need one; it sounds as though it might be useful.
JANE: It certainly would be better than soccer brawls… When you mentioned recycling bins earlier, that reminded me. I have a few questions for you on that and a related topic. How about next time?