All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

What do you call garbage?

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Garbage by any other name would smell as rank...the Toronto garbage strike.

Garbage by any other name would smell as rank…the Toronto garbage strike.

In a recent post I stated that the word “rude” comes from the latin for garbage. 

Since I teach a waste management course, aka the garb course, I started wondering why there are so many synonyms for the word garbage.  The origin of these synonyms reveals a whole side of human activity: our history revealed by what we have thrown away through the ages.  (If anyone cares, I got most of my etymologies here.)

Garbage itself is a rather old word – what were people throwing out when the word was coined?  According to my dictionary, it first referred to giblets and other organs of a fowl, and the word may be related to “grab” or “grasp”, in the sense of a handful.  This original, fairly specific meaning became generalized to mean anything thrown away.  How did this happen?  In this case, the word got mixed with a new word that was becoming common during the middle-ages, the word “garble”.  Garble meant what was left over from sifting spices, and comes from the latin cribum, meaning sieve.  (The modern English word crib comes from the Germanic krippa for basket, not from the Latin cribum.  Sieve, basket…)

The main source of spices in the middle-ages was the Arab traders, and the merchant world of the Mediterranean developed a trading language made up of Latin and Arabic words.  This language was mostly incomprehensible for the locals – hence the modern meaning of “garbled”, meaning distorted, incomprehensible.  Our modern word for garbage really comes from the twigs and pebbles left behind by merchant sailors in some ancient Greek or Italian warehouse.

This also gives an insight into why there are so many synonyms.  It seems that every ancient trade left behind some residue with a unique name.  Linen weavers gave us the word lingerie, but also the left-over lint (both from the germanic lin for flax).  Offal is what falls off the butcher block (this one comes from English or Dutch).  Junk is a nautical term meaning old rope, derived from the Latin Juncus for reed.  Crud is simply an older spelling of the cheesemakers’ curd, possibly derived from the Gaelic Gruth (to coagulate).  The blacksmiths’ scrap is originally from the Norse skrap meaning small things, trifles.  Stone cutters, road makers, and quarrymen gave us the words debris (from the old French for breakage), detritus (from Latin from worn away), and rubbish (the origin of this one is a mystery).  Farmers clean their grain of chaff (related to chewing), thrash (from threshing), and crap (in its original sense of weeds).  Dross, the waste from smelting, and dregs, the waste from brewing, both originate from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to make muddy”.  Dutch alchemists gave us “mother”, in the sense of a culture starter that coagulates in liquor, from modder, a old version of the word mud.

Mud, itself, comes originally from a proto-Indo-European word denoting something wet; while the Germanic trajectory gave us our word for mud (and, by extension, something unwanted), it gave the Greeks their word for damp, the Irish for cloud, the Sanskrit for urine, the Polish for slime, and, closing the circle, the Avestan for excrement.  The expression “your name is mud” is not to be taken lightly.

All these synonyms paint a picture of an era when garbage was simpler than now (toxic waste, anyone?).  Yet the words all came charged with the negative value of something unwanted, even possibly disgusting; think of the word reject, one of whose original sense in Latin was projectile vomiting.

So it’s surprising that the words describing what was household garbage back in the era where little was discarded have not themselves taken a negative connotation.  (The word discard, itself, reveals that card games were popular in the middle ages.)

We used to throw out fireplace ashes, bones, rags, oyster shells, and little else.  None of these words got an extended meaning of garbage – possibly because there’s nothing particularly offensive about the substances.  Nonetheless, the word shell has a complex etymology.  None of the derivatives of the root for shell, skel-, have the least association with garbage: shellac, scale, shale, scallop, and skoal.  Likewise, rags (originally from the old Norse rögg for shaggy hair, which also gave us rough) is relatively neutral as a descriptive, becoming negative only in the figurative sense (as in, dressedin rags) or in the word raggamuffin.

So it seems that garbage owes its numerous synonyms to the variety of sources of garbage, as opposed to the euphemisms that have resulted in the countless synonyms for words like excrement.

It may be that the French were more squeamish about their own garbage, because very many of the words used are perfect synonyms that come from descriptive adjectives: déchets (from the latin root that gave us decadent); ordures (related to horrid); immondices (from the latin root for improper); and vidanges, from the latin for vacant, void.

But French is also the only language where the common name for garbage can comes from a patronym.  History has retained the names of only two Parisian prefects: Baron Haussman, who built nineteenth century Paris; and Eugene Poubelle, after whom the garbage can is named in French.  Something to aspire to, I suppose.

Bunk is also used to mean garbage, in the figurative sense. The word is short for bunkum, a phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a North Carolina city.  A Buncombe representative became notorious for his overly long, vacuous speeches.  I wonder what the modern Buncombians think of that.

And what about the word waste?  It comes from the Latin vastus, meaning empty, desolate, desert, or wilderness, and it’s interesting how the Romans called desert any wilderness that wasn’t settled, including forests.  German has retained the original meaning in wüste (desert).  Vastus, which also gave us vast, vain, and devastate, came to mean a waste of money and ultimately garbage.  It is tempting to see a relation with the word west – the ancients didn’t like the west, where the sun “dies”, and associated the west side with death (the Egyptian tombs and pyramids are always on the west bank of the Nile, for instance).  There’s no support for this idea in the dictionnaries, unfortunately.

But I remain convinced that if we, in the West, don’t mend our ways, we risk turning the planet into a lifeless desert under heaps of waste.  Which would make for a grand etymology – and a great tragedy.

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Written by enviropaul

November 29, 2013 at 4:44 pm

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