Is it garbage, rubbish or trash?

Since I started to watch American TV programs as a boy I have always been fascinated by the different vocabulary that Americans use to describe their domestic waste. Perhaps this interest started for me with Oscar the Grouch, from Sesame Street, who lived in a garbage can and not a rubbish bin. In the US suburban sitcoms of the sixties it seemed that the father/husband characters, were, without argument, responsible for taking out the trash every week. More recently watching the urban forensic dramas I see that the garbage ends up in a dumpster (along with the dead body, several pieces of evidence and quite often a homeless person).

Now the vocabulary is quite different in Australia. When we take the bin out (not the can) it contains our rubbish (as it does in the UK). Garbage is more often used to describe something lacking in value. If we have a lot of rubbish to throw out we use a skip (like a dumpster but mostly without a lid).

In the US the trash collector, and in Australia the garbageman (garbo), picks up the rubbish and takes it to a dump in his garbage truck. However in the UK a dustman will pick up the rubbish in his dustcart (perhaps a refuse lorry) and take it to a tip; these are historic carryovers from when the major waste from houses in England was the dust from their domestic fireplaces (or as Dickens describes it in Our Mutual Friend, “…coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust, all manner of Dust”.)

But when we drop our lolly (Australian for US candy and UK sweet) wrappers on the ground we are all littering and the result is litter. However, when we pick it up in Australia it goes in a rubbish bin not a trash can (as it would in the US) or into a dustbin (as it would in the UK).

But why should Americans choose to use garbage or trash cans rather than rubbish bins? Is this a deliberate divergence or just happenstance?

Rubbish, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, dates from about 1400 and is derived from rubouses (1392), which relates to rubble and is of unknown origin. (By the way, the verb to rubbish meaning to disparage and criticize harshly was first used in Australian and New Zealand slang).

Garbage, first seen in 1422, originally meant giblets of a fowl and waste parts of an animal, and was likely later confused with garble in its sense of siftings and refuse. It may be related to the Old French, jarbage, which meant a bundle of sheaves, entrails.

Trash, meaning anything of little use or value, was first used in 1518, perhaps from a Scandinavian source as the Old Norse word, tros, means rubbish, fallen leaves and twigs; the Norwegian trask for lumber, trash, baggage; and the Swedish trasa for rags, tatters. Trash was first applied to domestic refuse or garbage in 1906 in the US. (It was first applied to ill-bred persons by Shakespeare).

Litter, has evolved from the Latin, lectus, for a bed, to the straw used for bedding (the 1400s) and eventually to scattered and disorderly debris similar to what you see with strewn straw. To litter as to strew with objects is from 1713, litterbug is from the 1940s, and littering as in the dropping of litter is from 1960.

Trying to find a modern difference in meaning between garbage, rubbish and trash is almost impossible. However, the Americans, using garbage in preference to rubbish for domestic waste are probably closer to the original meaning of garbage as animal offal, which, in the days before junk mail and packaging, would have been the only household waste apart from, of course, dust.