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“Trash” and its synonyms from a strictly historical point of view (part one)

It is amazing how many words English has for things thrown away or looked upon as useless! The origin of some of them is transparent. Obviously, offal is something that falls off, but even this noun was borrowed from Dutch (and compare German Abfall). Other etymologies are more intricate. Litter started its life in English with the sense “portable couch.” Next, we find “straw for bedding” (hence “number of young brought forth at a birth,” i.e., “a litter of puppies, kittens, pigs”), and finally, “trash.” The ultimate source is medieval Latin lectus “bed,” recognizable from French lit. What a sad process of degradation! (In semantics, this process is called the deterioration of meaning; the amelioration of meaning is also known but occurs much more rarely, as is the way of all flesh.)

A litter, but certainly not trash. (Image via Unsplash)

Not all stories are so transparent. A case in point is trash, the subject of today’s blog post. This word surfaced in English only in the sixteenth century. The original OED did not commit itself to any etymology, though it did mention an array of similar Scandinavian words having approximately the same meaning. Borrowing from Scandinavian into Middle English goes back to a much earlier period, and that may be the reason James A. H. Murray, the OED’s first editor, showed such restraint. However, a few Scandinavian words did make their way into English (or into English texts, which is not the same!) relatively late. Be that as it may, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966) removed the doubtful Scandinavian look-alikes and made do with the curt statement “of unknown origin”: safe but uninspiring.

Below, I’ll quote the entry trash from the latest (1911) edition of Walter W. Skeat’s A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language: “The original sense was bits of broken sticks found under trees…. Cf. Icel. tros rubbish, twigs used for fuel; Norw. tros fallen twigs, half-rotten branches easily broken; Swed. trasa, a rag, tatter, Swed. dial. trås, a heap of sticks. Derived from the Swed. slå i tras, to break in pieces, the same as Swed. slå i kras, to break in pieces; so that tr stands for kr, just as Icel. trani means a crane (see Crane).—Swed. krasa, Dan. krase, to crash, break; see Crash. Trash means ‘crashings,’ i. e. bits readily cracked off, dry twigs that break with a crash or snap.”

A crow and a crane, or sound imitation at its best. (Image via Unsplash, left + right)

In 1910, Skeat wrote a long article about the word trash, but his point was that alongside the noun trash “refuse,” the verb trash “to impede, hold back” exists, a word of French origin. That verb needn’t interest us here. Other than that, he stated without discussion that the noun is of Scandinavian provenance (his old point of view).

Long before the publication of The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright, a monumental work of perennial value, a correspondent to Notes and Queries (3/IX, 1866, p. 400) noted that in Suffolk truck means “odds and ends; miscellanea; rubbish.” A child “too fondly devoted to sweetmeats” is told not to eat “such nasty truck.” Is this another variant of trash? I doubt it but cannot offer any arguments for or against such an etymology. The Scandinavian hypothesis of the origin of trash looks attractive despite the late occurrence of the word in English texts, but why trash, rather than tras? Naturally, it has been suggested that the Scandinavian noun was influenced by Anglo-Norman, the version of French spoken in early medieval England.

Not out of Suffolk. (Image via Unsplash)

The tr- ~ kr (cr)- alternation to which Skeat referred causes no surprise, because bird names often have an imitative base: not only crane but also crow begins with kr-. Likewise, Russian ducks “say” kria-kria, not quack-quack. Variation in this sphere is always to be expected: the bird known as pe(e)wit in English is called kievit in Dutch and Kiebitz in German. If it is true that our story began with broken branches, an onomatopoeic basis of trash looks plausible. The initial group of crash certainly makes one think of a loud noise, as does, for example, br– in break and brittle or tr– in tread.

Skeat mentioned Icelandic tros “rubbish.” The source of the word is not improbably French trouse “baggage,” known to English speakers from trousseau. Therefore, English dross, dregs, dredge, and drudge are unrelated to it. The Icelandic synonyms of tros are trys and drasl. Tros turned up in books only in the eighteenth century, but trys is old. Returning to drasl, we note the deceptive variation tr– ~ dr-, as in tros ~ dross. Yet the words tras and drasl are not related and show how easy it is to arrive at the sense “trash, rubbish, refuse” from different sources.

Trash refers to what we throw away or what goes to waste, what is dismissed and discarded. Other kinds of “trash” are leftovers and lees, the remainder of the valuable part of an object. All kinds of “shavings” are also trash, so that the name for them may go back to various labor activities (such is, as we will see, probably the case of English trash). One expects words for “trash” to be “low” and therefore native, but since they often have a derogatory tinge, they travel widely from land to land, like other terms of abuse.

Judging by the facts at our disposal, the origin of English trash is not entirely “unknown.” Collecting twigs and branches was once an important activity. Those bits were collected by hook or by crook (see the post for 25 May 2016 on the origin of this idiom). In the Middle Ages and some time later, special regulations existed for appropriating such pieces of wood, because they constituted valuable “trash.” Trash probably did get its name from the crashing sound involved in breaking twigs and branches. The short word trash was easy to imitate and told its sound-imitative story (as it were). Therefore, or so it seems, speakers of Middle English took a fancy to it. Later, the loanword tras passed through many a French mouth, emerged as trash, and finally (in the sixteenth century), after many years of existing only in “popular speech” or regional English, turned up in texts.

Is this the origin of trash? (Image via Pixabay)

This reconstruction looks reasonable, but the closeness of such unrelated Icelandic synonyms for “trash” as tros and drasl invites caution. One draws the same conclusion from the coexistence of Russian musor and sor, two close but unrelated synonyms for “trash.” There is also busor, a regional doublet of musor, whose origin remains a matter of debate. Even though caution is an indispensable guide in all etymological research, in my opinion, its use should not be overdone.

Skeat always supplied the words in his dictionary with references to the source languages of the roots. I would like to suggest the following heading for the entry that interests us: “Trash (Scand.-French).” Perhaps our authoritative dictionaries will follow this recommendation. We’ll see: there is nowhere to hurry.

Feature image by Brian Yurasits

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    The English “trash” is likely related to the ancient Greek “θραυση” (break). Since when something “breaks” it becomes “trash”!

    This etymology I claim fits well the “Icelandic synonyms for “trash” as tros and drasl”. With the obvious “dr”/”θρ” correspondance! The “tr”/”θρ” goes without saying.

    Hope that makes your day! It made mine!

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