Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

A "Dumpster Fire" of a Year

At its annual meeting, held this year in Austin, the American Dialect Society selected a two-word lexical item as its word of the year for 2016: dumpster fire. And it set a precedent by including an emoji representation of the term in its announcement of the vote.

Yes, that's a wastebasket, not a dumpster. More about that later.

Dumpster fire won in a runoff vote with woke, a slang term meaning "socially aware or enlightened." Also-rans included normalize, post-truth, and #NoDAPL, the hashtag protesting the construction of the North Dakota Pipeline. (For a full list of nominees and winners, see the ADS press release.)

Why dumpster fire? "As 2016 unfolded, many people latched on to dumpster fire as a colorful, evocative expression to verbalize their feelings that the year was shaping up to be a catastrophic one," Ben Zimmer, chairman of the society's new words committee (and former Visual Thesaurus executive producer), said in the press release. "In pessimistic times, dumpster fire served as a darkly humorous summation of how many viewed the year's events."

Fire was a popular theme in this year's vote. The word was nominated in the Slang Word of the Year category – it's an adjective meaning cool, fun, stylish, and is also used as a general superlative – and the "fire" emoji by itself won in the Emoji of the Year category.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who is writing a book about Internet language, noted that the two-emoji dumpster fire phrase is a significant development.

But although more than 1,800 emoji are available on various platforms, the emoji vocabulary is still crude compared with a mature language like English.

We do, however, have dumpster-fire gifs. This one was popular last year.

Dumpster fires are real, and they're alarming, but they usually aren't terribly dangerous. (Confession: I once inadvertently started a dumpster fire by disposing some not-completely-cooled fireplace ashes. Do not do this!) One early metaphorical use, as documented by Mark Liberman in Language Log, is in a September 2009 Washington Post story about professional football:

When you lose to the team that has the worst owner in football, does that make your owner the worst owner in football, your general manager the worst assembler of talent in football?

Just asking.

Because if Jim Zorn has to answer one more question about his job security, it's time to also hold the coach's players and his superiors accountable for this dumpster fire — this abomination of a loss.

Liberman commented: "The idea seems to be that you start with a large steel box full of garbage, and then you set it on fire, and the result is a cheap spectacle that combines the properties of arson and garbage."

Back in May 2016, shortly after OxfordDictionaries.com added dumpster fire to its lexicon, the Oxford Dictionaries blog noted a steep rise in the occurrence of the term beginning in mid-2015: "Curiously enough, Donald Trump just happened to announce his campaign for the presidency on June 16th of last year." The blog's author, Jeff Sherwood, noted an even earlier use than the Washington Post story: a 2003 movie review in the Arizona Republic that compared the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to "the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire." Sherwood went on:

I would argue that, in the thirteen years since, a shift has taken place that has increased our cultural tolerance for and even enjoyment in a good old fashioned dumpster fire. What it shares with all the other, faddish terms lately coined to describe extremely bad situations is a specific emphasis on spectacle, on the inexpressible thing about a situation gone horribly wrong that makes it weirdly captivating. It's a feeling encapsulated well by phenomena like car-crash rubbernecking or the perennial appeal of movies about natural disasters. Paradoxically enough, there is a strange kind of satisfaction to be derived from watching something fall apart.

Dumpster was originally a trademark registered to Dempster Brothers, Inc., of Knoxville, Tennessee. The company first used the Dumpster name in 1935 in connection with the wonderfully named Dempster-Dumpster system of mechanically loading standardized containers onto garbage trucks. Dumpster was coined from dump and Dempster; the company also created the Dempster Dumpmaster and the Dempster Dinosaur. (Dump, a verb meaning "to throw down or fall with force," has been in English since the early 14th century; its origin may be similar Scandinavian words. The noun dump – "a place where refuse is dumped" – goes back only to 1865, and was originally used in mining operations. And dump to mean the act or result of defecating goes back to 1942. World War II was a productive time for scatological slang.) Dump truck is from 1930; dumpster diving, the process of searching through a garbage container for food or items of value, has been around since at least 1980. All of these usages are chiefly American: British English uses skip or big wheelie bin for dumpster, and tip for dump.)

For decades, copy editors were taught that Dumpster was a trademark and required capitalization. That changed in 2013, when the Associated Press Stylebook, which is followed by most U.S. newspapers, changed the rule. The trademark had expired in 2008, so the term was now fully genericized. It now appears in a wide range of non-Dempster trademarks, including RentADumpster, Dumpster in a Bag, and even Dumpster Fire ("fantasy football for the 1%").

Then there's this diversion, which may have been what Geoff Nunberg was thinking about when he referred to "internal rhyme" in his tweet.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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