In 2009, sportswriter Mike Wise had just started a radio show at 106.7 The Fan, a Washington D.C.-area sports station. Wise, now a senior writer at The Undefeated, noticed that one of his work buddies, a traffic reporter at the station named Liz Drabick, had an evocative pet phrase.
"Whenever someone was having a really bad day, or someone was completely out of sorts, she'd just go, 'Oh man, guy's a dumpster fire.' Or she'd go, 'Oh, that whole organization is a dumpster fire,'" Wise recalled in a phone conversation recently. "And I was like, Hey, that's pretty good." That very year, he used it in a column about the Washington football team, writing, "[I]f 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."
Wise was hardly the first to commit a metaphorical "dumpster fire" to print, but 2009 was a different time. His smidgen of hesitation as to whether his readers would be familiar with the term emerges after the em dash, when he elaborates on what the "dumpster fire" was, for those who weren't clear.
No one would need such an explainer now. Seven years later, more or less every politician, sports team, mediocre TV show and annoying celebrity has been compared to a receptacle full of burning waste. Have we reached peak dumpster fire? And how did it come to ... well, to this:
To get to the heart of it, we have to go all the way back to the beginning.
The word “dumpster” sounds so perfectly suited to its purpose that it hardly seems necessary to question its origins. But that would be a mistake, because the real story is even more linguistically charming. The dumpster broke onto the scene in 1936, part of a brand-new patented trash-collection system that introduced the basic concept of the modern garbage truck, with containers that could be mechanically lifted and emptied into the vehicle from above. The system, invented by future mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, George Dempster, took its creator's name, and the Dempster-Dumpster was born.
“Dumpster,” the word we use today, emerged from the fortuitous marriage of “dump" and “Dempster.” Though Dempster trademarked the brand name "Dumpster," the term has been so thoroughly applied as a generic noun that the Associated Press now directs that it be styled in lowercase. No one, after all, would choose to write "trash bin" when "dumpster" would do better.
Had this sanitation system not been engineered by a man with such a punny name (Dempster-Dumpster), would “dumpster fire” as an insult have ever taken off?
In British English, for example, one is more likely to hear the term "skip" to denote a large garbage receptacle, but does "skip fire" grab one as an equally startling and appealing barb to deploy on Twitter? What about "Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been a complete wheelie bin fire"? Not so much.
Wise told me that, back when he started hearing "dumpster fire" from his colleague, "I tried to go off on it and use my own -- I think I used 'commode fire' at one point." Not bad, but "commode fire" didn't catch on in the same way. The intrinsic goofiness of “dumpster” adds a certain off-kilter punch to the epithet that isn’t easily replicated.
The concept of the inherently funny word defies easy study, but comedians and humorists -- Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python -- have long deployed nonsense words calculated to amuse through sound rather than meaning. What makes a Seussian neologism funny? A common layman's theory relied on by performers: Plosive consonants (p, b, t, d, k and g), with their abrupt, "explosive" sound, jolt a natural chuckle out of audiences. A Wikipedia entry on inherently funny words displays a compilation of pop culture's faith in this rule, from "30 Rock" insisting that "k" is the funniest letter to Rowan Atkinson making the common name "Bob" sound hilarious in an episode of "Blackadder."
If comedians are onto something, Mr. Dempster accidentally stumbled onto something too; his name, and therefore the dumpster, contains not one but three plosive consonants within two syllables. It's an inherently funny phoneme bonanza.
Still, both dumpsters and dumpsters set ablaze waited around for quite a while -- decades -- before the public really took an interest.
The dumpster fire, to state the obvious, isn't a fictional concept, though for most middle-class Americans today it's basically intangible. "Who has real dumpster fires?" joked Wise when we spoke on the phone. "Nobody actually has dumpster fires in real life, so why not use it for other things that seem to be flammable, that are just going up in flames in your life?" Most of the people I talked to about the rise of the metaphorical dumpster fire offered a similar reaction: Who's ever seen one? Do they even happen?
Much like a train wreck, any given person probably hasn't witnessed a full-blown dumpster fire in person, and yet the two varieties of accident do occur. Dumpster fires pop up on police blotters and inspire signs outside football stadiums aimed at tipsy tailgaters: DO NOT PUT HOT COALS/CHARCOAL/ASH IN DUMPSTER! My own partner's father once disposed of some seemingly extinguished charcoal from his tailgate grill in a hard plastic dumpster outside Giants Stadium, only later realizing that he'd sparked a trash blaze. Months later, he recalled to me in an email, he found an extra insert with his Jets season ticket renewal: "There was included in the package a lengthy directive about pre- and post-game tailgating which went into great detail on the subject of the proper way to dispose of hot coals. This directive included the cautionary tale of the dumpster fire of the previous season."
A Google search pulls up references to dumpster fires in local newspapers and fire department training documents as far back as the 1970s, but pinning down the derogatory use of the term is tricky. Even after one tries to filter out official reports of actual dumpster fires, it seems like the term just suddenly appeared everywhere in the last eight years, and before that was nowhere. Isolating a patient zero is a maddening task.
Last month, Oxford Dictionaries’ Jeff Sherwood took a stab, and he stumbled into similar roadblocks:
In the first place, waste containers do seem to really catch on fire with alarming frequency in the United States, so the vast majority of evidence for the phrase actually refers to literal dumpster fires. Secondly, the figurative meaning’s meteoric rise in visibility is inseparable from widespread online use of an image macro featuring a green dumpster with a terrifically implausible conflagration blazing from its top. Part of what makes the internet as unpredictably creative and innovative is just this kind of hive-mind collectivity, but, in this case, it comes at the cost of obscuring who first thought to exploit the unusually cathartic absurdity of watching stuff you didn’t want any way go up in flames.
Though Oxford Dictionaries recently added "dumpster fire" to its digital rolls -- Sherwood pointed to a 2003 Arizona Republic review of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as a particularly early example of this usage -- when I asked linguists about the term, most hadn’t given it any thought and seemed surprised to hear it termed a newly popular epithet. Gerald Cohen, a slang scholar, sent it to the American Dialect Society’s listserv to see if anyone had insight to offer.
A response from society member Bill Mullins suggested that the insult was not so recent (it has, he pointed out, had an entry in Urban Dictionary since 2008) but also not so common. "I'm not sure it is ubiquitous. I've seen it occasionally in blogs," he wrote in response to my query. "These things come and go. A decade ago, you'd often see online references to someone 'beclowning' themselves. A couple years ago, you'd often see reference to Obama as a SCFOAMF (Stuttering Cluster Fuck of a Miserable Failure). Now, neither of them are as common as they had been."
True, we often fall prey to the illusion that what’s happening right now has lasting significance (surely "damn, Daniel" is still funny), and that what we’ve begun to notice on our corner of the internet is representative of the whole. Our Twitter feeds make solipsists of us all.
Dumpster fire, nonetheless, is having at least a moment, if not a watershed moment that will culminate, decades from now, in a subversive summer rom-com called “Dumpster Fire.”
Just take a look at the numbers. Compared to "dumpster fire," "beclown" and "SCFOAMF" barely nudge the dial of Google Trends over the past decade. The former has a comfortable baseline, thanks to its perennial local news presence, but its upward trajectory in Trends begins steadily around 2011. In the past year, “dumpster fire” even overtook the old reliable “clusterfuck.”
Where does dumpster-fire-as-insult really come from? Even when we can’t isolate an inventor (as we can with the use of "Santorum" for ... just Google it), it’s often possible to narrow the field to a culture or subculture. Mainstream white culture notoriously appropriates lots of slang from African American Vernacular English (see: yasss queen, throwing shade, ratchet, basic), thereby immediately stripping said slang of its cool factor.
Dumpster fire’s origins remain rather nebulous. The article Sherwood found seems fairly representative of many early uses: It’s about pop culture. One of the earliest Urban Dictionary definitions of the phrase, from 2008, specifies: "In entertainment or sports, a laughably poor performance." Other early examples show up in voicey political blogs, like this 2006 screed about the Republican Party’s ethical scandals.
The most likely subcultural culprit, though, is the sports world. Linguist Mark Liberman, who works at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a recent blog post, "A few years ago, I noticed hosts and callers on sports talk radio using the phrase 'dumpster fire' as a metaphor for chaotically bad situations." He noted that the term had "spread to other domains," but he fingers sports as the origin point.
Another source, Mike Wise's colleague Liz Drabick, agrees. When I spoke to Drabick on the phone, she remembered, "It definitely became a sports talk radio catchall phrase, I want to say around 2010, 2011." As a sports fan and sports radio employee, she was, she said, "well entrenched" in the culture, and she told me she listened regularly to Dan Patrick, Jim Rome, and other sports commentators. Who did she remember using "dumpster fire"?
"I'm almost loathe to admit this," she said, "because it's not the same personality that I enjoy now, but it was definitely the Herd. It was Colin Cowherd."
Drabick isn't wrong about Cowherd, a notoriously polarizing, abrasive and ubiquitous sports personality who has over a million Twitter followers. (In 2015, Cowherd left his long-time employer, ESPN, for a new contract with Fox Sports, and ended up spending his last week with ESPN suspended from the air after making offensive comments about Dominican baseball players.) Some more clues point to Cowherd as the popularizer, if not the coiner: a 2008 blog post by Joel Anderson, now a Buzzfeed reporter, opined, "to borrow a phrase from Colin Cowherd, McCain is turning into a dumpster fire right before our eyes." In September 2008, an SBNation Syracuse blog quoted him slamming the college town like so: "That place is a dumpster-fire. It should be noted, one of the least-attractive college campus in the country [sic]."
Now, Google can do many things, but scouring the audio files of every sports talk show ever aired isn't among them -- at least not yet. If a Syracuse diehard hadn't gotten mad enough to blog about this particular snippet, Cowherd's colorful language in that particular September 2008 episode would have gone unnoticed in my research. We're left to wonder how long Cowherd, and possibly other sports personalities, bandied about "dumpster fire" before writers took it to print.
Meanwhile, there's that 2003 Arizona Republic movie review dug up by Oxford Dictionaries' Jeff Sherwood, which deemed that year's remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to be "the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire -- stinky but insignificant.” Though that's the earliest use of the insult in its current form that's been dug up on the web so far, that by no means establishes it as the first use. Maybe the film reviewer, Bill Muller, who died in 2007, heard the term on his favorite drive-time sports talk show (he also wrote a recurring column on fantasy football). Maybe he invented it himself; there's really no way to know.
What we can see: At some point, dumpster fire took hold in the sports world and began to spread.
At first it may have smoldered almost undetectably, but before too long, the insult had caught fire, and there was no dousing it.
In the context of sports commentary -- brash, macho, preoccupied with success and failure -- the epithet “dumpster fire” suddenly makes a great deal of sense. In sports, it matters little whether a team is perceived as "dirty" or "classless," especially since the fans typically don’t care as long as they're racking up wins. College or professional sports organizations don't primarily register as "stupid" or "evil," overwrought think pieces about the New England Patriots aside. A team wins games and is good, or it loses and is a goddamn disgrace. A pitcher could have all the personal integrity in the world, but if his fastball isn't popping? He’s garbage. The local football franchise is scrambling through a multi-season losing streak? Total crap.
A dumpster fire, now, that’s beyond. Worse than trash, worse than dog s**t, worse than a car with the wheels coming off, worse than a tire fire: A dumpster fire combines the pathos of unwanted garbage with the cathartic destruction of an uncontrollable blaze. A dumpster fire team isn’t just unsuccessful, it’s catastrophically bad; there’s really nothing to do but watch it continue to self-destruct from a safe distance.
This label for shockingly, entertainingly dreadfulness also fits comfortably on, say, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2," of which one critic wrote, "this atrocious movie ... is the cinematic equivalent of biting into an old brown banana." Or, as another put it, a "rancid cinematic dumpster fire."
Outside of the realms of designated spectacle -- sports and entertainment -- dumpster fire might seem both too grandiose and too unserious for common parlance. We simply can’t call political unrest in the Middle East "a complete dumpster fire.” Snarking that our work nemesis is “a human dumpster fire" seems disproportionate.
Yet dumpster fire is everywhere. Its spread can likely be attributed to a few factors -- the goofiness of the word "dumpster," the vivid image conjured by the phrase, and even the irreverence of using such a random metaphor as an insult. In a world where social media callouts for uses of offensive slurs or denigrating language have broadly increased awareness about the downsides of using racial, gendered, or ableist insults, garbage-based epithets seem both potent and safe.
In a 2015 MetaFilter thread about "garbage person," user palomar explained, "When I describe someone as a garbage person, or as a dumpster fire of a human being [...] I have had interactions with that person that have caused me to dislike them so very strongly that I want to call them a name, but specifically because I do not want to use an ethnic slur, class slur, gendered slur, et cetera, I had to figure something else out." No one wants to be compared to a dumpster fire, and a dumpster fire, simultaneously, can't defend itself as being insulted by those comparisons. It's just a pile of burning trash.
These days, "dumpster fire" seems to crop up all over: Election analysis, business commentary, and, perennially, sports blogs. On Twitter, people throw the term at dismal iTunes updates, the internet generally, TV networks, dumb articles, and other tweeters they think are horrible human beings.
And Trump. Always and especially Trump.
Trump’s early appearance as a 2016 GOP contender encapsulated all that was dumpster-fiery about modern politics. He was bigoted toward racial, religious, ethnic and cultural minorities. He made crass comments about women. He proposed policies that made little to no practical sense, then took them back or denied having ever made them if he felt like it. He implied he had a large penis at a presidential primary debate. He was a showman, and his show relied on the same cheap schtickyness that movies like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" do.
If, like many aghast Americans (even Republicans), you thought Trump was a garbage person, prejudiced and willfully ignorant and narcissistic -- well, unfortunately it soon became clear that he was also en fuego. All his offensive comments and obvious lack of political expertise failed to puncture his rising poll numbers. He took primary after primary until he was left, as he is now, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. Take one heaping pile of trash and multiply it by the unpredictably destructive force of a raging inferno, and you’ve got something both grotesque and somewhat terrifying.
Trump might have been the perfect Trumpster dumpster fire, but he was also too perfect -- too garbage, too on fire -- to be contained by the insult. A dumpster fire sounds cathartic, under control, a weirdly gross sight that provides a frisson of fear without seeming too threatening. After all, the fire is only hurting all that garbage you didn't want anyway. It's enclosed by a metal container. What's the worst that could happen?
This apparent lack of serious risk actually might be part of the appeal of dumpster fire as an insult, but when it comes to the potential presidency of someone like Donald Trump, the lack of gravity starts to seem incongruous. Enter the dumpster fire variants -- Nate Silver's "nested dumpster fire" descriptor for the GOP primary back in March, Raw Story's "landfill inferno" and one that manages to combine garbage, fire, and hell on wheels: "rolling dumpster fire."
A 2009 Urban Dictionary definition of "rolling dumpster fire" explains:
A rolling dumpster fire is an individual, or a collective, whose actions are treacherous, destructive, bone-headed, and out of control. [...] Though very much like a hot mess, dumpster fire, or a train wreck, the main distinction of a rolling dumpster fire is that he or she is out of control, can't be stopped, and is threatening to light the whole goddamn neighborhood on fire.
That might seem to mark the distinction between something like the U.S. men's national soccer team facing off against Argentina as opposed to something like Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The former, as New York Times reporter Nick Confessore suggests in the above tweet, is unpleasant to see, but basically self-contained; the latter threatens to take down everything within reach that seemed stable and good. Dumpster fire seemed too tame? Now we've got a dumpster fire on the move.
Putting aside the fact that dumpster fires are not so tame -- they may contain explosive or otherwise reactive waste, spread to other structures, or even be used intentionally to harm others -- hyperbolic language typically begets more hyperbolic language. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch put it to Atlas Obscura, we reach for ever-more striking images and intensifiers to replace those that we've made threadbare.
Actually, the death knell for "dumpster fire," rolling or stationary, seems to be due. Such over-saturation of a particular, visceral image or phrase typically leads it down the road to obsolescence, like the "epic fail" and "fml" of yesteryear. Already, some are calling for the phrase to be thrown out with yesterday's garbage.
"Dumpster fire" has all the flavor of an original metaphor, but it no longer has the freshness. It injects vividness into conversation without demanding the effort of creativity.
At some point, though, we can't have both. Sites like Gawker Media's properties, which rely largely on their edgy tone and distinctive writing, already seem to know this. On Jezebel, rather than a constant return to the dumpster fire well, each article about Trump contains a new phrase even more pointed, evocative, and infinitely new: "stately hot dog casing," "sentient hate-balloon," "Nacho cheese golem." None of these has become, nor is likely to become, a linguistic trend, but that's what makes each one so brutally effective.
"Dumpster fire" is likely on the express path to becoming passé, but that's just the circle of slang life. And hey, there may still be great things in store for the epithet. Remember "fml," which has been on a steady downward slope since the height of its popularity in 2009? Retirement is treating it well. The official trailer for "FML The Movie" dropped this week.
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