Meanings: Rubbish, Trash, Garbage

November 5, 2012

Language Log this morning has a post about Mitt Romney’s use of the word “rubbish” in a context where most Americans would use “trash.” Mark Liberman notes that “rubbish” is much more common among Brits than among Americans.

The Google Ngram Viewer shows both “trash” and “garbage” on the rise in recent decades relative to “rubbish.” But note that “rubbish” was much more common in the 1920s, and note, too, the spikes in the frequency of “garbage” at the beginning of the 20th century and again in the 1940s. Question: why are both “trash” and “garbage” on rise? It’s not that they are replacing “rubbish:” use of “rubbish” has just flattened out.  Could it be we are just increasingly in need of words for stuff we don’t want in a disposable society?

Rubbish” is of Anglo-French origin, and appears to be related to “rubble.” “Trash” is an Old Norse word that originally referred to fallen leaves and twigs.  “Garbage” appears to come from an Old French word that referred to the giblets and the other waste parts of an animal.  Animal, vegetable or mineral: which word would you choose?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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