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How We All Became “Garbage” People

Looking at our obsession with trash

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, the city of St. Louis was ablaze with 23 dumpster fires in one night, which is objectively too many dumpster fires. I don’t know if people in St. Louis have a superstition where they sprinkle gasoline around their rubbish to keep the trash fairies at bay, or if the county uses wooden dumpsters, but anyway, the St. Louis Fire Department dealt with the outbreak. There’s another type of dumpster-fire surge happening on the internet, though, and I don’t know what can make it go away. At this point, it’s easier to name what hasn’t been described as a “dumpster fire” than what has, at least for proper nouns.

Think of a few random names. Whatever pops into your head, like when Dan Aykroyd from Ghostbusters: The Man Version (1984) imagined the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Once you have those names in your mind, Google them along with “dumpster fire.” I’ll go first: Mark Zuckerberg, Boston, Carlos Santana.

Two out of three! Carlos Santana, according to my preliminary research, has never been called a dumpster fire online. Smooth. Donald Trump and his presidential campaign, on the other hand, get the dumpster-fire designation so often that there are now articles about the trope of Trump-as–dumpster fire. And Oxford Dictionaries added the phrase to its online dictionary this year.

The word “dumpster” is technically supposed to be capitalized, although the rules are relaxing to reflect this new use case. “We now lowercase dumpster, so you could write dumpster fire,” The Associated Press Stylebook recently tweeted — a testament to the word’s faddishness, as well as the AP’s thirstiness. Even though many people write it in lowercase anyway, Dumpster is technically a brand-name waste container; a mashup of “dump” and the name Dempster. (No relation to the actor Patrick Dempsey.)

The rise of dumpster fire has coincided with the rise of “garbage person.” Atlas Obscura’s Cara Giaimo wrote a great piece tracing how garbage person became “the internet’s favorite insult.” Giaimo noted that Charles Manson had described himself as a garbage person in 1970, but that its popularity has spiked in recent years, with characters on Broad City, Girls, New Girl, and BoJack Horseman all using it as a catchall term for a suck-human. (Whether Shirley Manson has ever referred to herself as a Garbage person is unknown.)

“Garbage” is fun to say. You can spit it like an insult, plus there’s always the option of saying garb-aje like you’re some French éboueur delicately plucking waste from a quaint bin on your way to the brasserie. And then there is “trash.” Unlike the other sanitation-adjacent slang, trash has a more specific use case in some pop culture fandoms. Fusion’s Lilian Min recently wrote about how Tumblr communities are using trash to describe themselves, as a sort of tongue-in-cheek preemptive acknowledgment that it’s not cool to be obsessed with Harry Potter or Hamilton. I’d argue that trash has not yet been completely played out. “Dumpster fire,” on the other hand, is not only worn out, it’s not even the best two-word dumpster-based stock insult. “Cum dumpster” is far more evocative but, alas, too nasty for regular use. Garbage person isn’t inherently lazy or bad, like Gwen Stefani, but it’s overexposed and pretty corny, like Gwen Stefani.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch often writes about how people use language on the internet, so I asked her if she thought these phrases have staying power, or if their potency is fading. “Like any hyperbole, I think ‘trash,’ ‘dumpster fire,’ ‘garbage person,’ and the like will eventually lose their oomph — one generation’s vivid metaphor is the next generation’s cliché,” McCulloch told me over email. “For example, British English has ‘rubbish,’ which means the same as garbage but is now used all over the place for things that are only somewhat bad.”

Even though their moment in vogue is temporary, why so many garbage words, all of a sudden? If I throw on my crotchety-old-man hat (which is a crumpled fedora covered in dust and spiders), I would say it’s unsurprising that a culture that venerates the young and new would embrace a category of insults that mocks the used-up. I’m afraid of spiders, though, and people have been fixated on youth and novelty forever. McCulloch has a more convincing explanation: “I’d say trash and garbage are popular because they have an easy association with a gross thing that’s not already overused. Bodily functions are also gross, but ‘shit’ and so on are already widely used, so they don’t have as dramatic of an effect,” McCulloch said.

McCulloch also pointed out that these words are less offensive than many other insults, which makes them safer to use. “Plus, unlike many derogatory terms, they’re not slurs for any particular demographic group, so they’re versatile insults that are also not going to offend anyone (except maybe Oscar the Grouch!).”

Once-fresh metaphors can curdle into clichés, and these words are already growing stale. I don’t think trash babies and garbage people and dumpster fires are retiring anytime soon, though. I suspect their popularity has to do with fatigue. We search for words to adequately capture how bad we think bad things are, and these are handy stock phrases. Like the phrase “peak [X],” using garbage person and dumpster fire is a signal that you’re fluent or at least conversational in internet-speak, which, at this point, is the same as popular slang — so it’s a quick way to appear at least vaguely au courant without actually coming up with something original. For someone who is tired of searching for the words to describe something that they think is bad (for instance, a writer covering Trump’s campaign), these phrases are filler that gives writing a superficially faddish sheen.