Garbage Words in English
Nuisance Grounds – Canadian Garbage
Like Pig Pen, the smelly character in Charles Schultz’s great comic strip “Charlie Brown,” we all must encounter garbage now and then.
One Canadianism for garbage dump or rubbish tip is nuisance grounds. From the Alberta-British Columbia boundary right across the Canadian prairies to northern Ontario one can still hear the phrase nuisance grounds, as a shame-born euphemism for garbage dump.
Western Canada once teemed with little towns run by bossy women who regularly used verbal evasion and told themselves they were being “delicate” and “proper.” Thankfully the sun of history is setting on that kind of virago, the bullying termagant who thought that “all men are beasts” and that a wife ought to permit sex once every Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. for a duration of 3.5 minutes, the mounting to be facilitated by the intromission of the male member through a small aperture in a Baptist quilt. Permitting hubbie any further access to the fragrant honeypot constituted godless wantonness, for which transgression everyone including hubbie — especially hubbie — would be punished. If persistent, hubbie might be conked on the noggin, dispatched, rolled up in a cone of old lineoleum and sent under cover of night to the nuisance grounds. Such were the castrating shrews who long ago encouraged the wishy-washiness of phrases like “nuisance grounds.”
In print since 1889, the circumlocution popped up in the Edmonton Journal in 1958: “In Banff, the best place to see bears is the ‘nuisance grounds’ — the preferred title [for the] garbage dump.”
In the short story “Where the Wind Began” from her collection Heart of a Stranger (1976), Margaret Laurence,one of Canada’s best novelists, wrote: “The town dump was known as ‘the nuisance grounds,’ a phrase fraught with weird connotations, as though the effluvia of our lives was beneath contempt but at the same time was subtly threatening to the determined and sometimes hysterical propriety of our ways.” Margaret Laurence here pinpoints one of the chief sources of small-town euphemism in her insightful phrase “hysterical propriety.”
Origin of Garbage & Offal
The Oxford English Dictionary does not know the origin of the word garbage and so retreats behind its fluttering fan of Victorian timidity by branding garbage “o.o.o.” ‘of obscure origin.’ Eek! But I disagree. I find the etymology suggested by master word sleuth Eric Partridge (Origins, 4 th ed., 1966) to be convincing. Partridge suggests that garbage derives from the word garbuge from Genoese Italian garbüdjo from standard Italian garbuglio ‘confusion, mess, intrigue, complex plot’ itself from bugliare ‘to be confused.’
Garbage first appears in Anglo-French cookbooks meaning ‘chicken guts’ or the offal of any food animal, then any discarded entrails of an animal to be eaten. English first adopted kitchen and food words in large numbers in the two hundred years after the Norman Conquest when French cookery books were found in rich persons’ kitchens. So garbage may stem from Old French jarbage ‘a bundle of sheaves, entrails.’ Perhaps. But jarbage could be a bolloxed Frenchifying of garbuglio.
The use of garbage to mean general refuse does not appear in print until 1583 CE. A much more recent coinage is 1976’s garbology, the scientific study of waste removal and recycling. Canada and the United States use garbage bags and garbage cans. Brits fling it into dustbins and dustbin liners and garbage tips.
A modern expansion of the word describes poorly written, bug-ridden, mistaken, inconsequential or waste computer data, familiar in the phrase “garbage in; garbage out.”
Rubbish as art; photo by British artist Andrew Hughes of Cornwall
The word offal began as off-fall, probably in Old English, since its form parallels so exactly words in other Germanic languages. Consider German Abfall ‘refuse, waste, shavings’ and Middle Dutch afval with similar meanings. Its earliest recorded use was to name wood chips or grain husk piles.
But even by 1400 CE offal also meant edible entrails and organs of food animals. Then it came to mean parts of slaughtered livestock NOT fit for human food. By 1600 CE offal was any garbage or refuse. It has always had a cherished place in the very short list of English insult words. Shakespeare relished the word’s denunciatory sound. In Julius Caesar, a character cries out “What trash is Rome? What Rubbish, and what Offall?” During the sixteenth century offal could refer to leftovers and crumbs. But that signification died out by the mid-nineteenth century.
Offal’s Two Parts
Offal = off + fall. In the oldest English words, the altering preposition takes its Germanic place in front of the verbal or nounal root as a prefix. For example, in words like inset, onset, outset. But in modern English such compounds tend to keep the modifying preposition as a suffix. A fight is a set-to.
Off-fall or offal is Old English. But in a modern coinage, we might say “there has been a fall-off in the price of grain.” Not an off-fall.
Other Garbage Words’ Origins in Brief
Debris is French débris, from Middle French debris, from debriser ‘to break to pieces,’ from Old French debrisier, from de- + brisier ‘to break’ where the Latin-derived verbal prefix de- merely intensifies the meaning of the root, hence debrisier ‘to really break down into parts so small they are refuse, junk and garbage.’
Junk is of utterly obscure origin. It appears, as Middle English jonke, in British naval English and flourishes at the end of the fifteenth century with one meaning ‘worn-out rope’ or ‘inferior ship’s cable,’ then takes on the more generalized meaning of old, useless material over the next centuries.
Refuse was originally French, refusé literally ‘refused,’ anything cast off as worthless, refused as useless rubbish.
Rubbish and rubble both appear related to the Middle English verb rubben in its sense of ‘wear away parts of something,’ hence debris.
Trash is from Norwegian trask ‘lumber, scrap lumber, wood chips, sawdust ’ then any kind of refuse.
Okay, collectors, now it’s time to put the garbage out.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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