TT: Squishy Realities

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.”

Trash Can?  Garbage Can?  Rubbish Bin?

Trash Can? Garbage Can? 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?

14 Responses to “TT: Squishy Realities”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    This post was not garbage. I liked learning about what the slang for “Getting your ashes hauled” actually meant. Oh, one my favorite bands in college was called: Ned’s Atomic Dust Bin.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      It’s an old Navy [and likely merchant marine] expression, going back to the days of coal-fired boilers. One of the first things a ship would do on returning to port was to get the ashes hauled away. First thing the sailors would do – after taking care of that rather unpleasant task – was…

  2. Dorian Says:

    Maybe the cats Down Under are more fastidious than the ones here (Ireland), but certainly I’ve known cats to dig in bins. In fact, I used to have a cat who, every few days, would come home shouting loudly, “Look at me! I am a Mighty Hunter! Behold my kill!” – And then proudly displayed half a very dirty sausage, or a bit of battered fish, or something else that had clearly come out of someone’s rubbish.

    Of course, these days we have wheelie bins, which are too tall for a cat to reach the top of, and anyway have hinged lids that a cat would have difficulty removing, so the rubbish is safer from feline (and other animal) depredations.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Irish wheelie bins must be shorter than ours. On the rare occasions my cats gets into the garage, they can jump onto ours. However, as you said, the lid is too much for them to knock open or off.

      • Dorian Says:

        They’re about waist-high on me. But what I meant was that they’re too high for a cat to stand on its hind legs and reach the top, unlike the dustbins we used to have (well, unless your cat is a Maine Coon!).

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I was about to say, between cats, possums, wekas, and keas, are you sure nothing messes with those yellow council bags?

    I have heard people use garbage in place of rubbish. Something isn’t a load of rubbish, it’s simply garbage. Of course, BS is often used to mean the same thing.

    As for kitchen bags, I’d understood that to mean the size of the trash bag: there are heavy duty bags, lawn and leaf bags, kitchen bags, and (IIRC) bathroom bags, each of a different size and thickness, since each was meant to fit in a different-sized receptacle and hold a different amount of weight. This may not be daintiness so much as trying to help people find the right-sized bag for their needs.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Nothing much seems to mess with the rubbish in urban areas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that things are very different out in the wop-wops — keas in particular are like to be very curious about these kinds of things. But unfortunately I’m stuck in the big city…


  4. Sally Says:

    I learned a round somewhere along the way:

    “Don’t chuck your muck in my ash can, my ash can, my ash can,
    Don’t chuck your muck in my ash can, my ash can’s full.

    Fish and chips and vinegar, vinegar, vinegar,
    Fish and chips and vinegar, pepper pepper pot.

    One bottle of beer, two bottle of beer,
    Three bottle of beer, four bottle of beer,
    Five bottle of beer, six bottle of beer,
    Seven bottle bottle of beer.” (And repeat, of course.)

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Amusingly, I know some of the same verses, but the words are different (presumably for exactly the same reasons that Jane and I have discussed so often…)

      So (in a broad Yorkshire accent:) —

      You can’t put your muck in our dustbin
      Our dustbin, our dustbin
      You can’t put your muck in our dustbin
      Our dustbin’s full.

      Neat, eh?


      • Sally Says:

        Cool! I dare say your version is more definitive, being closer to the source. And I’m glad to know someone else knows the song. I found no hits at all for it in a Google search.

        Jaunty little tune, isn’t it?

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    We actually still have men [I think it’s nearly all men, still] hand-dumping bins, but that’s because we have a compostable bin in addition to the garbage and recycling. It’s intended for food waste, plus the variety of items contaminated with organics that really shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet. That, means, of course, that it contains almost all the good stuff. Dogs and coyotes still dump the garbage bins, but the raccoons are more than smart enough to have figured out that those are a waste of time. They’re also quite capable of opening the standard, city-issued, latches. It seems that coon-proof latches are good enough to slow a human down noticeably, and the city decided that using them would slow down the collection process too much.

    Given that the raccoon population in Toronto is comparable to the human population, you won’t have any trouble comprehending the size of the miscalculation involved in this.

  6. Paul Says:

    Dogs (mainly) will get into any bagged garbage in our relatively rural neighborhood. Cans with tops are necessities.
    Re “ashes hauled”: I’ve seen it used a number of times in western novels. Given that it originated with the Merchant Marine, I’m not sure it’s an accurate western term at all. (Gregory Peck’s character might have said it accurately in “The Big Country,” but he didn’t.)

  7. Sean Says:

    – I have many fond memories of listing to “My old Man’s a dustman” by the Irish Rovers. Before singing for the benefit of the american audience they point out that a dustman was a garbage collector.

    – Our waste disposal unit in the kitchen sink has always been named Ralph. My wife fell into the habit within a week of us being married.

    – To deter some critters when I lived in rural Colorado as a boy, we often deployed cayenne pepper on the trash. However my most recent dog in Albuquerque was not deterred. She loved the spicy food. My parents have not yet had to move to the Bear proof containers, though almost all the nearby parks and open spaces have.

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