Of garbage, seagulls, civic pride, and nerdview

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I haven't revisited the topic of nerdview for some time now, but I thought of it again when I saw the utter, dispiriting uselessness of the sticky label I saw on Thursday morning:

THIS REFUSE HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR ILLEGAL PRESENTATION.

What the hell, I hope you are asking yourself, is that about? You need to live in Edinburgh's New Town to figure it out instantly. For the rest of you, I will explain.

The New Town in Edinburgh is called that because they didn't even start building it until the 1700s were almost over. It's a beautiful, carefully planned area of fine, high-ceilinged Georgian apartment buildings, half a millennium younger than the older parts of the town. The apartment buildings are called "tenements" (here that term connotes Georgian elegance rather than the ugly slum projects of Eastern US cities). These buildings have six or seven levels, with two apartments (which the British call "flats") on each level. The block where I live, built in 1830, has front doors on the sub-basement and basement levels way below the street (there is a sort of man-made canyon beyond the street-level railings) and a street-level front door that gives access to four other floors: ground, first, second, and third (to the mystification of first-time American visitors, the second floor in a British building is called "first").

How, in such a context, how can the local council handle the collection of garbage (or as the British call it, "rubbish")?

The wheeled bins of suburbia are out of the question here: nowhere to put them. Front yards are nonexistent except for the sub-basement flats, and they are two to four flights of steps down into the canyon from street level. There are no elevators (if we had them, they would be called "lifts"): the third floor residents have to climb six flights of stairs from the street with every bag of groceries (we don't buy wine by the case here). There is no outdoor space even for trashcans (if we had them, they would be called "dustbins"). So what do you do with twelve families' garbage per house?

So this is what Edinburgh does. Every few months the city council delivers several rolls of heavy black plastic sacks to each flat. People put their kitchen garbage and household trash in the sacks. Twice a week they haul their latest sack (plus their plastic boxes of recyclables) up or down the stairs to get to the street level and leave it by the kerb for council garbage trucks to collect. The law says you have to have your bag out early in the morning — but not the previous night. You see, Edinburgh is basically on a seacoast. We have seagulls.

These large, wily, and sharp-beaked birds don't spend all their time on the arduous traditional pursuit of catching live fish. Several days a week they head inland for an easier life, and flock to the New Town (they know exactly which streets to head for on which days). They come with the breaking dawn, looking for bags that were illicitly put out at midnight. In the spring and summer there is enough light to spot them as early as 4 a.m.; plenty of time to have breakfast before the streets start getting crowded with people walking to work.

Great gangs of gulls rip open the sacks, pull out packaging and envelopes and other dry trash and toss it all over the place, and dig around for discarded food, which they drag out and eat on the sidewalks (which are called "pavements" here; I hope you are appreciating the vocabulary lessons I have built into this piece). By 7 a.m., the street in front of many houses looks like a municipal dump.

The British waste a lot of food; in monetary terms, probably about £10 billion a year — $16,500,000,000 worth of food that no human ever eats). I walk to the university past big, beady-eyed seagulls eating whole boxed pizzas that went past their sell-by date; strings of sausages are being dragged around in the road; sideway and road are littered with meat pies, eggs, fish, cheese, bananas, uncooked chicken, bread, pasta; there are pounds of minced beef still in the supermarket shrinkwrap; and leftover meals in expanded polystyrene takeout containers which the birds peck their way into and toss aside when the food has been consumed.

These birds are big, omnivorous, and fearless: you cannot frighten them away more than about ten feet. They come straight back the moment you move on. And they have no sense of civic pride whatsoever. Edinburgh is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but the gulls do not appreciate that. On some pickup days I have had to come home and use a shovel and broom to clear up outside our home.

So I have been calling the city council to get them to come and prosecute the miscreants. When I see sacks on the kerb late at night I take them back up to the front doors, but I can't put them inside (the tenement houses have front doors with locks to which only the house residents have keys). What I'd like to see is police rubbish squads watching from unmarked vehicles and rushing out to grab the evildoers and haul them off to jail. But at the very least these people need to be identified and fined. I get up early enough to take my sack out on Mondays and Thursdays before 7 a.m., and make sure it's tied up tight and any food inside is sealed inside other plastic bags; so can they.

What the Edinburgh city council finally did, in response to my calls to the Environmental Protection department, was to come round and note sacks that had been put out too early, and they stuck on at least one of them (the one I noticed on Thursday) a small sticky label saying "THIS REFUSE HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR ILLEGAL PRESENTATION."

Nerdview is the (sometimes absurdly inappropriate) use of an insider's perspective and language in a context where messages are being addressed to a wider public. The symptoms are both perspectival (signs of seeing things as the factory or office or authorities would instead of from the standpoint of the public) and linguistic (using in-house jargon that the public might not even understand).

Everyone here calls garbage "rubbish" (as seen in this blog post about the resistance of New Town residents to the idea of large street-parked wheelie bins as a way of overcoming the seagull problem). Ordinary people absolutely never call it "refuse". So the city calls it "refuse" when talking to the public about it. That's nerdview.

The members of the public describe themselves as putting bags of rubbish out, and so the council talks about "presenting". People talk about the trucks collecting the bags, so the council calls it "uplift". Illegal "presentation" of "refuse" for "uplift". That's nerdview talk. [Update later: By the way, Brian Neill has pointed out to me a sense of check that is listed (number 11) in the OED: "To rebuke, reprove, reprimand." It is described as formerly archaic or dialectal, but now colloquial. Could they possibly have meant that the garbage itself has been reprimanded? I actually have no idea which sense of check they intended.]

The council exhibits nerdview conceptualization too. It apparently thinks it has done its duty if it verifies that certain "refuse" sacks are illegally "presented" and puts stickers on them saying they have been "checked". Inspection done, problem identified, regulation sticker attached, residents thereby informed, job done. It all makes sense if you are them. Not if you're us. We know that the sort of people who put their sacks out at night so they can sleep late are the sort of people who don't read council notices or stickers. And the sacks will be gone before they get up anyway. It can only make sense to put those stickers on the bags under a council-internal nerdview conception of the situation.

I wanted armed garbage patrols hauling off thoughtless neighbours in police vans, and what I get is nerdview stickers stuck pointlessly on sacks.

It'll be Monday tomorrow. Another "refuse uplift" day on our street. I can sense the excitement of the seagulls already. They will be gathering in flocks at Cramond and Leith Docks and Portobello to make plans for their big day in town, starting with a free al fresco breakfast buffet on the streets of the New Town.

[In due course I will be deleting the more absurdly parochial and non-linguistic comments below; this is not UK Refuse Uplift Policy Complaints Log, this is Language Log, and what I tried to present for you (though it needed backstory) is some new cases of nerdview. —GKP]

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46 Comments

  1. Nicholas Sanders said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:35 am

    Dustbins is a very pan loafy term – buckets is more Embra.

    [If I knew what "pan loafy" or "Embra" meant, you can be sure I would explain them to you. But I am going to have to leave it up to Nick himself. They might as well be Greek to me. In fact I would be better placed to understand them if they WERE Greek terms. I wonder what language they come from. —GKP]

    As for moving those bags about, I have to tell you that you can get into *serious* trouble doing that – they become the property of the Council as soon as they hit the street, and disputes regarding them can involve the police.

    I know, I was that soldier!

  2. Sili said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    Why haven't you checked the bags for identification? Are you afraid of upsetting your neighbours?

    The problem is the same in Bath, but I don't know if it's actually illegal to put rubbish out the night before. (I didn't get up that early, but I did occasionally walk home at that hour.)

    If it's any consolation wheeliebins don't help. We've just had ours locked in a little enclosure, because apparently people from outside our block were using them. Now there are four bins for the block. About right, but… some people are too lazy to walk two metres to put their bag (which they can't figure out how to seal) in the last bin, so they just drop in the first one next to the door, regardless of whether it's full or not. So after a week the lid can't close. And it's only emptied every other week. And May was exceptionally hot (as was April).

    No gulls, no. But bluebottles!

    This has been a short announcement from "We hate inconsiderate neighbours' rubbish" log. We now return you to your regular linguistic news.

  3. Nicholas Sanders said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    Checking the bags for ID is exactly what one should not do – in Edinburgh they are clearly marked as being the property of the Council.

  4. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    "I get up early enough to take my sack out on Mondays and Thursdays before 7 a.m…."

    What is one to do, however, if one lives alone and works the night shift? It's quite possible that one could leave home too early to put the rubbish out and also arrive back home too late to catch the early morning refuse collection. A classic no-win situation if ever there was one. Meanwhile, all the council seem able to manage is to go around putting little stickers on bags; while they're about it, couldn't they find the energy to pick up the offending bags and toss them in the back of a trash cart? Gee, don't get me started about British petty-mindedness – I might never stop.

    [The problem of night workers and others with unusual schedules has indeed occurred to me. I don't know what to do about it. But overnight provision of a seagull banquet that litters the entire street with trash is surely not it. And let's not insult the workers: my impression is that they pick up what can be picked up at reasonable speed, but they can't start gathering up distributed litter. I know I passed a refuse uplift operative who was calling on a cellphone about the mess on one street. However, I found the almost-empty bag with the sticker on it under a parked car, and I had to dispose of it myself (legally, I hope). —GKP]

  5. Blake Stacey said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    Having read David Brin's Uplift series of science-fiction novels, I find that "refuse uplift" carries disturbing connotations.

  6. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    Tagging the offending bag (for the benefit of the scofflaw owner) as the bag is being taken away is as absurd in its own way as marking one's favorite fishing spot on the side of the boat. Surely to God someone on the council has better sense than that! I do like the exposition on nerdview words, though. All governments and NGOs do that. It's their trademark.

  7. Dan T. said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    They probably think "rubbish" is too colloquial, or maybe they don't like the connotations of it as an exclamation: "Rubbish!"

    Government proclamations always need to be in a properly officious register.

  8. Bobbie said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    Where I live (in the US), early bags are also tagged, as are garbage/refuse/trash bins that are rolled out too early the night before. I think there may be a fine for repeat offenders. Not sure if the sanitation department workers keep records — or maybe the bags are tagged by the Health Dept. In this area (coastal Virginia) we have problems with seagulls, crows, rats and dogs that can get into the food trash. Out West it is apt to be coyotes.

  9. Blake Stacey said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    THIS REFUSE HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR ILLEGAL PRESENTATION.

    The word "checked" is bothering me. At first glance, this notice sounds to me rather like the tags the US Transportation Security Administration leaves on one's baggage when said baggage was inspected at the airport. My instinctive interpretation of "this refuse has been checked" would be "this refuse has been examined", i.e., "We looked through your trash for used needles, dead kittens, empty containers for gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate, etc."

    Is "checked" in the sense of "flagged" one of those things I'm just too parochial to recognize readily?

  10. nav said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:14 am

    Strange: in other parts of Edinburgh there is a 'big' bin on the street where residents can dump their rubbish. Why not in New Town?

    [The answer is in the link I gave to this law blog post. —GKP]

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    In comment #2, Sili wrote: "No gulls, no. But bluebottles!" I wonder if Sili enjoys tormenting Australians with disturbing mental images.

    (The joke here is that in British English a bluebottle is a blowfly, but in Australian English a bluebottle is a portuguese man'o'war. It is best for all our sakes if the latter does not learn to fly.)

    By the way, in our tradition of compromise between British and American vocabulary, we have rubbish and we have garbage but unlike the Americans we do not have trash. I would say rubbish is the umbrella term, and garbage is some subset of rubbish, depending on where it is at the time. Exactly how I distinguish these terms doesn't make any logical sense and would only confuse the reader, and in any case I believe there's lots of individual variation.

  12. Dan T. said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    "Checked" has connotations of being examined for something, without actually revealing whether it was found or not.

    Rubbish, garbage, trash, junk, refuse, offal, waste, discards… all the words have slightly different connotations.

  13. Tlönista said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    THIS REFUSE HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR ILLEGAL PRESENTATION

    That sounds a little ambiguous. Someone has seen the trash, and determined whether it's "presented" illegally or not. You'd expect it to be followed by "and it's here il/legally".

    Like Blake Stacey, I read a lot of science fiction…and invoking the venerable term "uplift" suggests that the garbage, with the help of the city council, is transcending its rubbishy nature to become self-aware, perhaps leaving behind its frail physical shell for an immortal existence in a machine-generated simulated reality.

    I suppose virtual landfills would take up a lot less space.

    Parochial sidenote: Here in Toronto, the problem is raccoons getting into the organic waste bins. It's an arms race. City-bred raccoons are big, determined, and unnervingly intelligent (humans' opposable thumbs give us an edge, but not much).

  14. Pix said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    When I lived in Shetland, it took me several weeks to work out that the weighted nets draped over people's fences did not, as I had assumed, belong to part-time fishermen, but were provided by the Council to defend bin bags from the twin threats of gulls and high winds. It sounds like Edinburgh could do with something similar.

    On language, however:

    "pan loafy" = of or relating to the soft, almost crustless variety of white bread known in Scotland as "pan" (as opposed to plain, which is somewhat heavier); by extension, snobbishly middle class* – it's hard to get one's head round now, but there was a time when such denatured fare was considered "posher" than more wholesome alternatives.

    "Embra" = a slackly-elocuted local pronunciation of Edinburgh; hence unsnobbish/ demotic/grassroots.

    *"middle class" = in Britain and Europe, that segment of the population rendered – or with pretensions to be – wealthy by trade, professional expertise or less than 300 years' ownership of real estate (and thus distinct from the aristocracy). Not to be confused with AmE "middle class" meaning anyone with a job.

    [Thank you! My vocabulary acquisition is coming on by leaps and bounds. —GKP]

  15. Amy Reynaldo said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    "Embra" sounds like Riddley Walkerese for Edinburgh, no? Canterbury turned into "Cambry," as I recall.

  16. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Pix, thanks, I simply hadn't appreciated that Brit/Euro "middle class" has the meaning of AmE "upper middle class" (hyphenated variously). I'm disturbed to imagine the interpretation given abroad to our politicians' constant loud pandering to our middle class.

    Thanks also for explicating "pan-loafy." How sad that over here the same effect is given by accusing someone of having (what are perceived as) European tastes. Indeed, our most xenophobic and provincial elements (now aka "wingnuts") perceive Europe itself as effete, or should I say pan-loafy.

  17. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Yes, to me, "has been checked for illegal presentation" seems to imply "we looked at it to try to decide if it was presented legally or illegally (but we aren't specifying whether it was, in fact, presented legally or illegally)."

    I guess they actually meant "checked" as in "tagged" or "labeled."

    Also, using the word "presentation" almost makes it sound like the problem was some kind of aesthetic flaw (e.g. the bag was tied with the wrong kind of knot or something) as opposed to the problem being the very fact that the bag was there at all.

  18. Amber said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    In my part of the US, "trash" is largely nonputrescible, while "garbage" is largely putrescible. "Waste," when not denoting unusable leftovers, means feces. A wastebasket, however, is for trash, never for waste.

    [More excellent lexicography! And now at last I have an excuse to tell the story that a Language Log reader (Fiona Hanington) told me by email some time ago, about an acquaintance of hers who astonished her by saying "I measure my waste every day." It seemed so implausible, putting a ruler against each turd, or perhaps weighing them on kitchen scales... It actually cost Fiona four hours of puzzlement before she realized that (of course) it was the homophone "waist" that had been uttered. —GKP]

  19. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    Well defined, Amber. A wastebasket is a trashcan putting on airs, since a trashcan can hold garbage in addition to trash. There is no ambiguity in garbage can, however. It will hold everything.

    "Checked," of course, means "I've caught you at it, and you've been so marked." Rather like, "Tag! You're it." This notice is only useful if the notice goes back to the offender. Who (but the gulls) will see it at the dump? Apparently the burden is on citizens to return to the kerb (curb?) just before uplift (ROTFL) to read their citations.

  20. Picky said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    Take care, Dan Scherlis – Pix's definition of middle class is OK as far as it goes – but you should be suspicious of any statement about the British class system which isn't set about mightily by caveats. It's very much more complicated than Pix's handy guide would indicate. In particular, wealth is not the deciding factor.

  21. Confused said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    The apartment buildings are called "tenements" (here that term connotes Georgian elegance rather than the ugly slum projects of Eastern US cities).

    Only in Edinburgh. I grew up scarcely twenty miles away from Edinburgh (Falkirk, which has it's share of seagulls) and the word tenement is inextricably linked to the Victorian tenements in Glasgow, which are (to me at least) archetypal slums.

    I really feel you on the seagull issue, living as I do within a good stones throw of the River Tay in Dundee. We at least have wheelie bins, but the carnage in the morning makes it obvious when someone has filled one to the point that the lid stays open…

    When I went to University (in the decided non-coastal Sheffield), I was always surprised at how much venom and bile some people reserved for pigeons as scavenging vermin. On moving to Dundee I realised that it was because they'd never lived in a city with seagulls.

  22. Andrew said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    I am rather doubtful that 'checked' does just mean 'flagged'; I suspect it does in fact mean 'examined'. Not, of course, to determine whether it was 'presented' illegally – that's obvious – but to find out who the 'presenter' is, by searching for discarded documents that would identify them. At least, I know Edinburgh residents to whom this has happened. (This does mean that 'for' is being used in a rather odd way; I'm not suggesting that this is perfect English.)

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    So you need planning permission to put out wheelie bins in New Town, and the residents consider having the place strewn with rubbish every refuse collection day is aesthetically more pleasing.

    Funny how these kind of problems only occur in the UK. I've lived in France, Spain, Saudi, Kuwait and Sri Lanka, and in every place the garbage collection is much more frequent and better organized. In Spain the daily collections are held at night. The rubbish is put into skips by the side of the road from seven in the evening onwards and sometime after midnight the garbage van comes round, automatically lifts up the skip, and tips its contents into the truck.

    And why can't they shoot the seagulls, or poison them, or release a load of feral cats to solve the problem ecologically?

  24. Kate said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    I'm with Andrew – I think it means "the contents of this rubbish have been examined because the rubbish was illegally presented."

    Incidentally, isn't 'the second floor in a British building is called "first"' rather prescriptivist with US as the standard English? In Britain, that *is* the first floor, it's not merely called that.

    [Not prescriptivist, Kate: Language Log is hosted in the USA, and has overwhelmingly more readers in the USA than anywhere else, and uses American spelling. I was explaining British lexicography using American English as my metalanguage. Neither variety is wrong, of course, but in this case you had to guess which one I was using in the main text! —GKP]

  25. John Ellis said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    Years ago when I was a student in Edinburgh I shared the basement of a house on Eglington Crescent in the New Town with other students. Our landlady made us wrap food waste in newspaper and put it in a separate bag. Somebody wasn't doing this, which resulted in the landlady putting up a notice in the kitchen that began "Dear Mr. Lettuce".

    Now that is what I *call* nerdview.

  26. Dan T. said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    In a purely mathematically logical floor numbering system, the ground floor would be "zero", with floors 1, 2, and so on above it, and the basement and sub-basement being -1 and -2 respectively. If there's a mezzanine between two floors, it would be something like 0.5. And, of course, you wouldn't have the superstitious idiocy of skipping the 13th floor.

  27. Mark Etherton said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    In London the " sort of man-made canyon beyond the street-level railings" is an "area". The street side of it used to be for storing the coal for the furnace for heating and hot water. The servants would come out from the scullery in the basement and cross the area to get coal to stoke the furnace. There were circular covers in the pavement for the holes through which the coal man (think of Stanley Holliday in My fair Lady) would pour the coal. The Georgian terraces in Edinburgh are similar to those in England, although I don't know whether "area" is also used in Edinburgh: I'm pretty sure "canyon" isn't. (And if a building is 1830, I would have thought it's debatable whether it's Georgian in the strict sense.)

    [The Georgian period covers the eras of George III and George IV. George Augustus Frederick Hanover, King George IV of the United Kingdom, was born on 12 August 1762 and lived until 26 June 1830. Our building had its first tenant by then. Please do not nitpick the writers at Language Log, Mark; we didn't get where we are today by being wrong about things. —GKP]

  28. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    Here are two uses of language I've encountered in the past that, although maybe not "nerdview" in the very strictest sense, nevertheless are good examples of "the listener can't read the speaker's mind."

    —Once at Polyglot Conspiracy, a real-life example was given of a conversation about vocabulary differences involving speakers from two different regions of the Anglosphere. One person asked the other, "Do you folks call muffins muffins?" Of course, the only possible answer is "It depends on what you mean by muffin."

    —When I was about 12, a neighbour and I wanted to play poker, but couldn't remember the relative rankings of all the hands. In particular, we couldn't remember which was better: a straight or a flush. So my friend looked it up, and reported back to me: "It goes a straight, then a flush." I said "What do you mean? Which one is better?" He just frustratedly repeated his exact words, unaware that his answer was ambiguous.

    [Nice examples, Skullturf. Of two different things. The first is the issue (I mentioned it above) of divining which dialect a person is using as their metalanguage for talking about the dialect they are talking about. And the second illustrates the point that sometimes the unclarity is not in the syntax or the semantics or even the pragmatics, but in the perspective that has been taken on the situation: you didn't know if he was ascending or descending the ranking, and he (even after prompting, which is surprising) failed to see that without knowing that you couldn't interpret his perfectly correct statement of what the ranking was. I must file these away. Oh! No, I forgot. This is a blog. They are already filed away. Google will find them if I just say "{Skullturf muffin poker flush}". —GKP]

  29. Stephen Jones said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    The thing I find marvellous is the idea that the council think putting the note on the bag is any use at all. Why on earth should the guy who put it out ever bother to look at it again?

    It's that that's the clearest example of 'nerdview'. The idea that the resident is remotely interested in what the council tagger is?

    Now possibly there's a rule that says they have to warn the resident so they tag the bag, even though it's obvious the warning isn't going to reach him.

  30. Blake Stacey said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    Nerdview is the (sometimes absurdly inappropriate) use of an insider's perspective and language in a context where messages are being addressed to a wider public. The symptoms are both perspectival (signs of seeing things as the factory or office or authorities would instead of from the standpoint of the public) and linguistic (using in-house jargon that the public might not even understand).

    In three words, PC LOAD LETTER.

  31. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    I don't know what the problem is with the seagulls in Edinburgh. Here in Titahi Bay, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand ten miles north of Wellington, we put out our rubbish in plastic bags either on the morning of the collection or on the night before, and the seagulls — of which we have plenty, large black-backed gulls and smaller black-billed and red-billed gulls — take no interest in them whatever. Perhaps that's because they know of better pickings elsewhere, in the sea or at the municipal rubbish dumps.

    We have to use the official bags, which are lettered as follows:

    OFFICIAL PRE-PAID REFUSE BAG
    Maximum WEIGHT of Bag 15 Kilos
    Carefully wrap SHARP objects
    Let ashes COOL
    TOP MUST BE TIED

    BAG TO BE OUT BY 8.00am
    ON COLLECTION DAY

    For more information phone [the city council's number]

    All this seems to me to be admirably non-nerdview.

  32. Robert T McQuaid said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

    A large fraction of the purchases I make now come wrapped in a high-tech film only a few thousandths of an inch thick, but strong enough that it cannot be opened by a man of normal strength without a toolbox. Why doesn't Edinburgh use that for rubbish/refuse?

    Robert T McQuaid
    Mattawa Ontario Canada

  33. Katherine said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    Adrian Morgan said: "(The joke here is that in British English a bluebottle is a blowfly, but in Australian English a bluebottle is a portuguese man'o'war. It is best for all our sakes if the latter does not learn to fly.)"

    It's the same in NZ English (as you might expect). I was wondering how bluebottles were getting into the rubbish! Now I know.

    Dan T. said: "In a purely mathematically logical floor numbering system, the ground floor would be "zero", with floors 1, 2, and so on above it, and the basement and sub-basement being -1 and -2 respectively."

    It's more fun when the building is on a steep slope. Street level along the main street for one building at my university was level 4, and the ground levels for the other three sides of the building clockwise were floors 2, 1, and 3. And we didn't have a 'ground' floor.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

    "nth floor":

    It seems that in Britain the word "floor" is used like the French "étage", meaning a built-up floor that is above the ground level, by contrast with the one at street level which in French is called "le rez-de-chaussée" (lit. 'the (one) right at street level'). In North America there is no such distinction, and the "ground floor" is not usually at street level but somewhat above it, so it is the "first floor".

    The distinction between the street level and other levels probably dates from the ancient time when the street level floor was not paved or covered with wood, but left bare, just beaten earth, as with some "basements".

  35. marie-lucie said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    Seagulls, etc

    I live in the port city of Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada) and we don't have a seagull problem. There are some seagulls around the harbour (which has its own problems), but not in huge numbers, and not in the city itself.

    A few years ago the city instituted a recycling and garbage disposal program which is considered very advanced, and the envy of other Canadian cities. Household waste needs to be divided into three groups: all perishables (food waste, including bones, most yard waste, such as grass clippings and dead leaves, and thin cardboard such as cereal boxes), go into "green bins" (provided by the city) and will be taken to a composting centre: each household has a small bin for daily kitchen use, the contents of which are placed into a much larger wheeled outdoor one (probably the "skip" mentioned above) which is picked up every two weeks by the garbage truck which picks it up and dumps it automatically; recyclables such as newspapers and other clean paper waste go into blue plastic bags, and so do clean glass, plastic and metal, and this category is picked up every week; only things which do not fit these specifications go into the third type, put into dark-coloured bags tied at the top, which are picked up alternately with the "green" waste.

    With this system there is very little of the repulsive mix of clean and putrescent waste which makes dealing with household garbage such an unpleasant task. There is very little odor inside the house if the compostable stuff in the small green bin is dumped into the large outdoor one every day or even more often, as the bin is too small for the contents to have time to decompose before needing to be dumped. It is recommended to line the small bin with some paper (which makes cleaning it easier) and to place some newspapers at the bottom of the large bin (which has some aeration), something which reduces the odor problem in hot weather (but the problem can also be avoided by putting potentially smelly garbage in the freezer until the next collection). Cleaning the large bin is still a problem, and some enterprising companies offer bin cleaning on the spot, coming to the house with a truck which carries and recuperates the hot water needed.

    Every year the city sends to all households a calendar with information on city services, including the pickup schedule for green and other waste and an updated list of what is included in each category. A few things such as batteries, paint etc cannot go into any of the three basic categories and have to be taken to a special depot. I keep this information on my refrigerator, as it is not always obvious what fits in each category. Altogether the system seems to be working well as most people comply with the regulations. Garbage bags which do not contain food waste do not attract animals, and the garbage collectors will not collect bags which are torn or otherwise damaged (they leave the bag there with a little tag). I would not swear that there are no seagulls or raccoons in some parts of the city, but I have not heard of them being a problem.

  36. Nathan Myers said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    I saw the word "kerb" swoosh by without authorial notice or explanation. I assume it means something ever-so-much like a curb. This reminds me to ask whether one "kerbs" one's dog, there, too, or, perhaps, as in Paris, fails to do?

    From the way it's reported, one might reasonably conclude that the entire UK is blanketed with video cameras, swathed from Say to Cape in surveillance. Surely all these late-sleeping miscreants have been recorded on camera sneaking their rubbish out of doors in the night?

    Of course the sensible solution, rather than surveilling, or "checking" bags or residents, would be to gather the bags before first light of dawn — perhaps, even, before midnight. That might not be as pleasant for the trash collectors — er, refuse gatherers? — but it has the advantage of offering some chance of actually working.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    The Halifax (Canada) solution: I forgot to say that in theory the bins and bags are supposed to be put on the curb early in the morning of the collection day, but most people put them out the night before and no one seems to care.

  38. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    @Nathan Myers. It's only the noun "kerb" that's so spelt and means the stone edge of what in AmE is called the sidewalk. All the other senses are "curb".

  39. Mad Jack Slam said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    "And now at last I have an excuse to tell the story that a Language Log reader told me by email some time ago, about a friend of hers who astonished her by saying "I measure my waste every day." It seemed so implausible, putting a ruler up against each turd."

    I used to work for Greenpeace and one kind gentleman once sent us a diary that he had kept for a year with precisely that information (except it was weight, rather than length). He felt that it would help the organisation develop plans for dealing with the amount of human waste produced. We disagreed.

  40. Mark Etherton said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 5:36 am

    I wasn't nitpicking on the point of whether a building built in 1830 is Georgian, merely trying to make a linguistic point. Clearly I should have expressed myself better. All I intended to say was that while "Georgian" architecture means, in the words of the OED, "Of or resembling the style of architecture, esp. domestic architecture, characteristic of the reigns of the first four Georges (1714-1830)", in my experience anything built under George IV is more often described as Regency: "Applied to styles of architecture, clothing, furniture, etc., characteristic of the English Regency, and, more generally, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century." (OED again).

    [Quibble, quibble, quibble, quibble! —GKP ;-)]

  41. Gemma said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    "There is no outdoor space even for trashcans (if we had them, they would be called "dustbins")."

    In Edinburgh, might these not be called "buckets"? Or is this too Glaswegian for residents of the New Town?

    [Yes, Gemma, they are called buckets. Nicholas Sanders actually implied it in the very first comment above (you must read your fellow commenters, you know); but I only learned that yesterday when I talked to the lady who works in the nearby pub. She does indeed call the black plastic bags "buckets". I was slightly amazed. But my vocabulary learning proceeds apace. —GKP]

  42. Jonathan said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    As a medical doctor (and, which is worse, a neurologist), avoiding nerdview is a constant struggle in everyday conversation – as a consequence of which it particularly irritates me when others fail to avoid it, or even to see the value in doing so. Just this morning a group of my colleagues were interviewing a patient, and one question was "Any history of tremor?"

  43. Nick Z said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    @Nathan Myers, @Simon Cauchi. I gather that 'curb' in the sense Nathan was using it means something like "not let your dog shit on the pavement (or sidewalk)". Am I right?

    As far as I'm aware, BrE. doesn't have this usage at all. At least, I'd never heard of it when an American English speaker asked me the same question a little while ago, and it's not in OED.

    I suppose if we had it it would be 'kerb', if it is denominative from 'kerb/curb': "edge of the pavement/sidewalk". If it is an expanded usage of the verb 'curb': "restrain, check", then it would be spelled 'curb'.

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    Where I find nerdspeak occurring all the time is in examination rubrics. We've just been doing some oral examinations, which for varying reasons that don't bear going in to, are written in Australia. We are supposed to read out or have the student read depending on the particular instruction, a set of full sentence or whole paragraph instructions that in practice can be shortened to short phrases (Read then speak, Page 5, Discuss, etc ) or simple gestures. What the student does of course is translate the nerdspeak of the rubric into the short form and go on from there. The motive seems to be that another examiner shouldn't find ambiguity, not that the student should actually understand anything.

  45. outeast said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    Is it not at least plausible that the note was meant to stop officious early birds among the residents from unwittingly repeat-reporting the bags (akin to the 'police aware' signs placed on and in vandalized cars) rather than to caution their former owner?

  46. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    A brief coda to the story. The evildoers in number 9, Cumberland Street (you know who you are, evildoers), put out their bags (buckets, in the local dialect) on Sunday evening, and by Monday morning at 7 a.m. the seagulls had set up a mini-dump twelve feet across. People were crossing the street to award walking through the ankle-deep trash and half-consumed decaying food. I made another call. By about 9:30 a three-person crew had arrived to sweep up and, I hope, deliver some kind of warning message about illegal presentation of refuse for uplift, which probably the residents of number 9 will ignore.

    But on the bright side, I have learned all sorts of things from the comments above: new lexical items like bucket, pan loafy, Embra, bluebottle (in Australian English); and several subtleties of the rubbish / garbage / trash / junk / refuse / offal / waste / discard / recycling semantic field… Language Log is a very interesting place. However, this conversation is now closed (comments are off), lest it turn into Refuse Bucket Uplift Log.

    But before I go, I cannot resist letting you know (thanks, Amy Forsyth) that up north in Aberdeen there is at least one seagull who disdains rubbish buckets, as you can see on a YouTube video: every day this bird it simply walks into a convenience store and shoplifts a packet of tangy cheese flavor Doritos (always the same flavor). These birds are just brazen criminals. Raccoons with wings.

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