Politics

The Dumpster Fire Hasn't Been Put Out Quite Yet

Can the Trump presidency's troubles stay contained?

Keeping it contained ... for now.

Photographer: Peretz Partensky via Wikimedia Commons

The dumpster fire, the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2016 (even though it is, of course, two words), is still with us. There was an actual dumpster fire in Medford, Oregon, on Tuesday, and another one in Salem, Massachusetts, last week.

And, yes, there are still metaphorical dumpster fires, too. There was this headline -- “Paul Ryan Failed Because His Bill Was a Dumpster Fire” -- at Politico that I stumbled across over the weekend. Which led to a couple of thoughts:

  1. Wow. People are still using that phrase?
  2. What does it say about our time that this has become an acceptable synonym for what the author of the Politico piece called “a failure of policy and legislative strategy”?

First, a little background for readers outside North America: A dumpster is what English speakers on other continents call a skip -- a large garbage container that can be loaded on the back of a truck. There are lots of actual skip fires, but no metaphorical ones that I could find.

The dumpster fire, meanwhile, seems to have made the leap from purely literal in the early 2000s. One early use found by Oxford Dictionaries' Jeff Sherwood was a 2003 movie review by the Arizona Republic's Bill Muller that referred to that year's remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as "the cinematic equivalent of a dumpster fire -- stinky but insignificant.” The rest was Google Trends history:

The Rise of "Dumpster Fire"

Search interest over time (100 = maximum interest)

Source: Google Trends

Claire Fallon, whose June 2016 Huffington Post story on the dumpster fire phenomenon stands as the definitive history to date, locates the term's rise in the early part of this decade in the world of sports commentary. It then broke into the mainstream with the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, a chaotic affair revolving around a man whose views many Americans -- especially media types -- dismissed as garbage.

The definition that Oxford Dictionaries has chosen for dumpster fire is "a chaotic or disastrously mishandled situation," but this misses the aspect of smug dismissal. Dumpster fires generally don't spread or cause that much harm. 1 A dumpster fire is a contained, unthreatening, almost amusing conflagration.

So you might figure that after Trump actually won the presidency, use of the term would fade. Indeed, the chart above makes clear that it has faded. Not all that much yet, though -- thanks in part, as the Politico article that got me going on this shows, to the ongoing struggles of Trump and the Republican Congress.

Still, it's hard to see how this can last. Either Trump pulls his act together, in which case the term won't apply, or things keep going downhill for him -- in which case the fire may spread to an extent that will be hard to depict as limited or amusing. Yes, my frame of mind has been overly affected by regular recent listening to Mike Duncan's brilliant podcast series on the French Revolution, that years-long drama of spiraling chaos and terror that nobody ever refers to as a feu de poubelle. Things probably won't end in disaster like that. But it wouldn't just be a dumpster fire, either.

Another question is whether, whatever happens in politics, the term "dumpster fire" will soon come to be seen (if it isn't already) as lame and out of date. The record of past American Dialect Society Words of the Year is mixed. We still use "app" (2010), "tweet" (2009) and "bailout" (2008) without irony. But "chad" (2000), "e-" (1998) and even "truthiness" (2005) all feel pretty dated. Then there's 2006 Word of the Year "Plutoed," which means demoted or devalued. Really!?! Does anybody ever use that word? Did anybody? What a dumpster fire of a choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Dead bodies are found in or near burning dumpsters with appalling frequency in the U.S., but it's generally not the dumpster fires that killed them.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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