By Anatoly Liberman
I am coming to the border of my flowering wilderness and find trash there. The most intriguing thing about it is its undeniable resemblance to some other words I have discussed. Icelandic drasl (mentioned earlier in connection with dross) has a doublet trasl. Both mean “trash.” Are they related to trash? I have studied word origins long enough not to be seduced by look-alikes. For example, German Dreck, which also begins with dr-, has nothing to do with the substances examined so far. It is akin to Latin stercus “manure” (s- is an enigmatic prefix occurring in hundreds of words across languages and even in the same language), but dross/trash indeed form a union. Its nature will be exposed at the bottom of the next page. Wait for the denouement.
Although some authorities hedge, most tend to agree that trash, which surfaced in English in the 16th century, is a borrowing from Scandinavian. Icelandic has tros “rubbish, twigs used for fuel,” Norwegian tros means “half-rotten branches easily broken,” and so forth. The earliest citations of trash in the OED, with one dubious exception, also refer to cut off branches, and the same holds for modern dialectal forms. Those words appear to be related to Swedish trasa and Norwegian trase “rag.” Especially close to trash is Norwegian trask “refuse” (noun).
The broadening of meaning from “some kind of refuse” to “refuse in general” is possible. For instance, Engl. rubbish contains the root rubb- and rubb- happens also to be the root of rubble “broken stones.” However, since rubbish has a suffix different from that of rubble, the parallel is not exact. Words borrowed from Scandinavian tend to surface in texts written before the middle of the 16th century; yet no example of trash predating 1555 has been found, and its provenance is not northern England. This problem may perhaps be explained away, for a few other Scandinavian words are known that occurred uncomfortably late in English books. Real trouble begins when we look at the sounds. If the source of trash was trask, final -sk should not have changed to -sh. Nor should tros have become trash, with a different consonant and a instead of o. For this reason (or so I assume), the OED calls the origin of trash obscure. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does not even list the putative Scandinavian etymon and writes: “Of unknown origin.” Some other influential dictionaries say the same, but this verdict is a bit too harsh.
As always in etymology, when one examines the entire picture, its contours become blurred, because examples multiply and point in different directions. Not too long ago, in Suffolk, a synonym for trash “rubbish” was truck. Here is an admonition against junk food: a child who was too fondly devoted to sweetmeats was told not to eat “such nasty truck.” A curious coincidence? Probably; on the phonetic level, there is no way from truck to trash. We find obsolete (except in dialects) Engl. trash “to walk with exertion; to fatigue,” trash “leash” (obsolete or dialectal), trash “to check a hound by a leash” (obsolete and dialectal, like the noun from which it was derived), and trace “a strap by which a vehicle is drawn” (of French origin, distinct from trace “track,” also from French). None of them designates “rubbish”; yet trash “rubbish” and trash “fatigue” have been connected, apparently, for a wrong reason.
Engl. -sh did replace French -c, as in abolish, demolish, vanish, and so forth. Consequently, the great semantic overlap with the Scandinavian analogues notwithstanding, trash “rubbish” might be of French origin. It is widely believed that Iago’s words (Othello, II:1, the end of the scene): “If this poore [sic] Trash of Venice, whom I trace/ For his quickly hunting, stand the putting on…” contains a pun, and some of the best modern editions print the lines so: “If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash/ For quickly hunting, stand the putting on…” and explain the second trash as “restrain a dog by a trash, or strap.” (Curiously, Skeat, writing in 1910, said: “Here trace is quite correct, for it means to hold back by a trace or leash, incorrectly called a trash. Of course no editor would think of allowing the correct form to appear here. Only Shakespeare himself could dare to do so.”) So far, no convincing French etymon of trash “rubbish” has been found, and the chance of its emergence is slim.
Verbs ending in -sh are often sound imitative: compare bash, clash, crash, dash, lash, smash, swash. Perhaps trash arose as a verb of the crash-smash-swash type and was primarily applied to cutting trees. Branches were “trashed” and went crash-crash and trash-trash under the ax; hence (such is my hypothesis) the noun trash “broken twigs”; later “refuse, rubbish; rags.” In England, branches groaned trash-trash, while the Scandinavians heard trask-trask. Tros and trask may thus be related to trash in an indirect way, as Engl. bow-wow is related to Russian gav-gav. Trees and dogs, as we know, say the darndest things. But how about Icelandic drasl-trasl? Their English sibling dross, as shown in a recent post, is a cognate of the old verb dreosan “to fall”: dross is what falls to the bottom (sometimes with a noise). Dreosan was, most likely, a sound imitative verb. The path from drasl/trasl/dross to trash, though not quite straight, is clearly visible as it winds its way through the thicket of onomatopoeia. Here is a last comparison. Frisian rusje means “noise” (Engl. rustle is related to it), but Icelandic rusl, an obvious cognate (-l is a suffix), means “rubbish, trash.” The string consists of the following links: fall (verb)—the noise of the fall—the thing that falls off or down—refuse (noun). We can rarely expect to find the entire set in a single language and have to connect “fall” with “noise” or “noise” with “refuse,” but given enough evidence from a large family of languages, the missing links become evident and the reconstruction acquires a measure of probability.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”