Last week (24 March 2021), we tried to find out the origin of “trash.” Today, the turn of rubbish has come round. We’ll see that in the beginning, words for things wasted or thrown away tend to denote some concrete refuse and only later acquire a generic meaning. Yet, when several synonyms share the field, they are seldom fully interchangeable. Thus, trash, rubbish, junk, offal, and garbage either refer to different kinds of discarded objects or have different stylistic overtones. One also notices with some surprise that in Modern English, all such words are borrowings.
Except for Walter W. Skeat, the authors of other reliable dictionaries inform us that the origin of rubbish is unknown or uncertain, even though this word has been current since the fourteenth century. The fourteenth century means Middle English. To be sure, people never stop coining words, but, if rubbish had existed in Germanic since time immemorial, it would have had a different look. A loanword? Probably. But before trying to find the source of our word, we should decide whether it has anything to do with rubble.
To the public, etymology is an anonymous area of knowledge. Those who have heard the names of Walter W. Skeat, James A. H. Murray, and Ernest Weekley probably realize that those scholars did not single-handedly find the origin of all the words included in their dictionaries, even though their contributions must have been significant. The less famous figures, to whom the study of the English vocabulary owes so much, belong to history, as the phrase goes, and even professionals seldom refer to them. About a hundred and fifty years ago, James A. Picton, Abram Smythe Palmer, and especially Hensleigh Wedgwood were well-known to the public (the internet has preserved the images of Picton and Wedgwood, and I hope that Picton is still remembered not only in Liverpool). In the indispensable periodical Notes and Queries, we can find their conflicting views on the etymology of rubble and rubbish. Does this sound funny: opinions on rubbish? Not at all!
Picton insisted that rubbish and rubble are, from an etymological point of view, different words. Rubble, he argued, goes back to Old French robeus or robows, which refer to
“the stone chippings mixed with mortar used in Roman and medieval buildings to fill in the core of a thick wall… So far as my researches go, I can find no instance of rubble having any other meaning than that of undressed stone fragments or chippings. The derivation suggested by Mr. Wedgwood [in his dictionary] from French repous is a very probable one… I maintain, therefore, that rubble cannot, under any circumstances, be identified with rubbish.”
One can see that rubble has never changed its meaning. Picton may have had a point, but robeus looks suspiciously like rubbish. Also, the evidence at Picton’s disposal suggested to him that rubbish had appeared in English almost two centuries after rubble, but in fact, the two words are almost contemporaneous.
Murray and his circle treated Picton with the respect that scholar deserved, and perhaps the formulation on rubbish in the old OED owes something to him (mere guessing). In any case, we read there that rubbish is of obscure origin, though related in some way to rubble, but that there is no certainty that Anglo-Norman robel and ruble, the earliest attested English forms of rubble, are of French origin. Indeed, no one knows whether robeus, the supposed plural of robel, ever existed.
The other school was represented by Wedgwood and Smyth Palmer. I’ll skip their musings on chronology and quote Skeat, who, like those two scholars, insisted on the identity of rubble and rubbish and even defined rubbish as “broken stones, waste matter.” Skeat looked on Middle English robows, robeux as the plural of the unattested word robel, “clearly represented but Modern Engl. rubble.” Let us not forget that robel did not show up in any text, a circumstance that explains the OED’s caution. Skeat went on saying that rubble is obviously the diminutive of French robe “trash” and cites Italian roba, one of whose oldest senses was (alongside “gown” and “robe”) “trash.” Robaccia still means “old goods, rubbish,” and robiccia means “trifles, rubbish,” from robe. I have more than once noted in this blog that every time a researcher, even one of Skeat’s stature, says obviously, we are or may be in trouble. When everything is clear, there is no need to say “obviously.” And let me repeat for the third time: robel has not been attested. Now, it appears, we should look at rob and robe, but this part of the investigation can wait, because still another hypothesis on the origin of rubbish deserves our attention.
In 1946, Leo Spitzer, a distinguished Romance philologist and an astute word historian, pointed to the Old French reborser, familiar to English speakers from the word brush. The senses associated with reborser are, among others, “to brush the hair the wrong way; stem the tide” and “retrace one’s steps.” In one of the modern French dialects, rebroh and rebrost mean “an accumulation of tree branches, tree stumps,” the reference being to the debris in a forest. Let it be remembered that English brush “wood thicket,” quite possibly identical with brush “utensil,” another borrowing from French, which appeared in English in the same fourteenth century and meant “lopping of trees.” In British English, this noun seems to be relegated to regional speech, but in American and Canadian English, brush(wood) is a familiar word. This is Spitzer’s suggestion:
“The heap of debris to which rubbish originally referred was a pile not of stone [as is the case with rubble] but of branches, and the main idea was not that of worthlessness but of obstructiveness.”
Updating great dictionaries is slow and sometimes thankless work: no sooner a new entry seems to be ready for publication than someone comes up with another ingenious hypothesis. To exacerbate the situation, in most cases, several perfectly reasonable solutions compete. Did Spitzer guess well? In this blog post, I try to stay away from listing and evaluating multiple conjectures, which would inflate the posts to many pages and only bore the readers, but an important detail struck me in Spitzer’s reconstruction, and I decided to revive it. Those who happened to read the previous post may remember that the earliest meaning of trash was “broken twigs.” Spitzer, I suppose, did not connect rubbish (as he understood it) and trash, and hardly anyone else has noticed the similarity. I am not saying that the riddle has been solved, but it would be nice to arrive at a single semantic explanation for rubbish and trash. Rubble would then have its own etymology, though rubble and rubbish, close in sound and meaning, may or even must have influenced each other in the course of their long history. If we accept this result, Picton will be vindicated, though not for the reasons he cited. He wrote:
“The two words rubble and rubbish, which are continually confounded, have really nothing to do with each other. Their origin is different, and their meaning entirely separate.”
Rubble, rubbish, rub, rob, robe, riffraff… Do they all belong here?
To be continued.
Feature image by Leonid Danilov