Dumpster fire

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A few years ago, I noticed hosts and callers on sports talk radio using the phrase “dumpster fire” as a metaphor for chaotically bad situations. And recently the usage seems to have spread to other domains and become more popular:

Klaus Marre, “Sheldon Adelson’s Newspaper Is a Dumpster Fire“, Who.What.Why 5/7/2016
Greg Wyshynski, “Dallas Stars goaltending exposed as smoldering dumpster fire; so now what?“, Yahoo Sports 5/12/2016
Corey Hutchins, “Colorado’s ‘dumpster fire’ politics“, The Colorado Independent 5/11/2016
David Rosenthal, “Why The Dodgers Can Never Win With That Dumpster Fire They Call A Bullpen“, CBS Los Angeles 5/22/2016.
John Shazar, “Mike Corbat: Citigroup Not The Raging Dumpster Fire You Think It Is“, Dealbreaker 6/3/2016

Wikipedia explains the origins of the word dumpster:

The word “dumpster”, first used commercially in 1936, came from the Dempster-Dumpster system of mechanically loading the contents of standardized containers onto garbage trucks, which was patented by Dempster Brothers in 1935. The containers were called Dumpsters, a portmanteau of the company’s name with the word dump. The Dempster Dumpmaster, which became the first successful front-loading garbage truck that used this system, popularized the word.

And ever since there have been dumpsters, there have been dumpster fires — though the first uses of that specific phrase that I’ve found is in a legal text from 1972:

… where there was no evidence that the officers conducting the search were ever in danger and where there was no showing that a dumpster fire and window-breaking incident that occurred during the officer’s absence was in any way related to the dormitory search or the abandonment of post.

As in that case, dumpster fires are often set on purpose — presumably that’s partly because some kinds of refuse are easy to set on fire, and partly because of a perception that setting fire to refuse containers is less dangerous to people and property than setting fire to buildings is.

And in 2000, Rick Brago used the concept of purposeful Dumpster fires as a point of comparison for the chaotic spectacle associated with the Florida vote-counting circus in the 2000 presidential election (“COUNTING THE VOTE: STREET THEATER; South Florida Immersed In Another Media Circus“, NYT 11/11/2000):

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Nov. 10— Florida has not had a show like this since the last Dumpster fire went cold after the fight for Elian Gonzalez.

The earliest purely metaphorical use that I’ve found is Mike Wise, “A Debacle From Top To Bottom” , Washington Post 9/28/2009:

If you lose to the worst team in pro football, does that make you the worst team in pro football?

When you lose to the team that has the worst owner in football, does that make your owner the worst owner in football, your general manager the worst assembler of talent in football?

Just asking.

Because if Jim Zorn has to answer one more question about his job security, it’s time to also hold the coach’s players and his superiors accountable for this dumpster fire — this abomination of a loss.

Just three games into a season, a meltdown is remarkably complete. After William Clay Ford, Detroit’s owner — a man whose team had become a punch line after 19 straight losses over two seasons — said, “We not only got the monkey off our back, we got King Kong off our back,” the Washington Redskins’ nadir can’t be far behind.

By 2010, this usage was well established in the national sports pages, especially in talking about football. Thus Jim Souhan, “Offensive overhauls have Brew in hot seat”, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, 9/2/2010:

If this Gophers football season and Tim Brewster’s head coaching career are smoldering like Dumpster fires by November, don’t be distracted by the smoke. Remember that the cause is buried beneath a layer of soot.

John Gonzalez, “Skins are looking loco”, Philadelphia Inquirer 11/16/2010:

Philly is 6-3 without McNabb and tied for first place in the NFC East. The Redskins are 4-5 with McNabb and have just two more wins than the Dumpster fire more commonly known as the Dallas Cowboys.

The idea seems to be that you start with a large steel box full of garbage, and then you set it on fire, and the result is a cheap spectacle that combines the properties of arson and garbage.

And from sports, this usage has spread to politics, economics, and cultural criticism:

[The Daily Caller] Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign mocked the Thursday Republican debate, calling it a “dumpster fire.”
[The Weekly Standard] Our National Dumpster Fire
[USA Today] Yes, this election has turned America into a giant dumpster fire, but it’s a dumpster fire we’re all in together.
[CNBC] Friday’s May jobs report was a dumpster fire anyway you look at it.
[Paste Magazine] DC’s had a rough year in the film arena following the complete and utter dumpster fire that was Batman v Superman

 



31 Comments

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 6:26 am

    “WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Nov. 10— Florida has not had a show like this since the last Dumpster fire went cold after the fight for Elian Gonzalez.”

    In all the demonstrations and protests concerning Elian Gonzalez, were there a lot of (literal) dumpster fires? If so, this citation would seem to be the point from which the metaphoric use emerged. It seems unusual to be able to pinpoint the origin of a sports trope in that way, as so many of them begin orally.

    [(myl) Setting dumpster fires as part of protests was common long before the Elian Gonzalez episode in 2000. Thus from “Disturbance sears east Tampa”, St. Petersburg Times 2/20/1987: “Police said the trouble started with a band of 20 youths and a fire set in a dumpster, then ballooned to include hundreds of residents,police officers and firefighters.” And I’d be surprised if similar things didn’t go back to the 1950s and maybe even the 1930s.]

  2. Andrew Dowd said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 6:59 am

    My intuition is that while Brago’s 2000 usage is consistent with the offhand characterization of “a chaotically bad situation,” all the sports examples I’ve ever seen, and all your later examples, require the situation to be an unsalvageable failure. Nobody cares enough about what’s burning to put it out.

    I’ve also heard “tire fire” used in sports to describe disasters that continue forever unabated.

  3. Jin Defang said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    I lived in Miami throughout the Elian Gonzalez episode and, though don’t pay a lot of attention to the local news, couldn’t escape hearing about this one. Dumpster fires were definitely not part of the daily news feed.
    The simile seems to be used sloppily, to cover both incidents of limited scope—which is properly what a dumpster fire is, since it’s presumably contained within the dumpster—and more widespread chaos. Seems doomed to overuse, like “the perfect storm.” Meanwhile, I’ll stick with tempest in a teapot.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    @Jin Defang: Thanks for clearing that up.

  5. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    2006, Dec. 17: “Tank Johnson’s life is a dumpster fire.” The State {Columbia SC] page C4. This was reported by Barry Popik via Gerald Cohen at American Dialect Society List and confirmed on newsbank.com. Several early uses, including this one, appear in football reporting or commentary.

  6. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    Regarding the early use in the literal sense, the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle is included in newspapers.com. It included, in the 1950s and 1960s, a summary of emergency calls, with “dumpster fire” a fairly common entry. The earliest I find is from the issue of May 9, 1957.

  7. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    After some football games, reportedly, riots included dumpster fires. E.g., “After Game, Police Arrest 52, But Calm Prevails on Campus”: “….There were several Dumpster fires, which was not unusual up there…” Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch 7 Oct, 1996. 02.C

  8. Doug Newkirk said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    See, also, “goat rodeo” and “cluster-f**k”. Each of these is usually caused by folks who “could [screw] up a one-horse funeral.”

  9. Aaron said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    I wonder if the fact that it sounds a little like a euphemistic deformation of “cluster fuck” has anything to do with it.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    This one is unlikely to spread to British English, where dumpsters are called skips. As far as I know, that’s one of those lexical differences that is completely unknown to most speakers of English, unlike elevator-lift, truck-lorry etc., where lots of people know how those people on the other side of the pond talk.

  11. Brett said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    @Aaron: When I first encountered this meaning of “dumpster fire” some time in the previous decade, I immediately interpreted it as being partially a euphemism for “clusterfuck.” However, it’s more than just that, since the burning dumpster is a nice metaphor. It suggests that whatever is being described was worthless to begin with, but not the situation has gotten so out of hand that it is a threat to others around it.

  12. Levantine said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    Bob Ladd, I would say many (most?) Brits are familiar with the word ‘dumpster’, but I agree that ‘skip’ in this sense is largely unknown to Americans.

  13. Rodger C said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    I first became aware of dumpsters in the US Army, 1969-71. They were still emblazoned “Dempster-Dumpster,” but this was invariably pronounced “Dempsey-dumpster.”

  14. GeorgeW said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 11:41 am

    “They were still emblazoned “Dempster-Dumpster,” but this was invariably pronounced “Dempsey-dumpster.”

    Until this post, I wasn’t even aware they were Dempsters-Dumpster, I always knew them as Dempsey-Dumpster. (And, I go back almost to the brown-shoe army – 1960s).

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    Bob Ladd and Levantine: I’m guessing there’s a substantial number of PBS viewers and mystery fiction fans who know that a skip is where British police detectives look for discarded evidence.

  16. Butcher Pete said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    As others have already noted, it always seemed to me to be useful, media-friendly synonym for clusterfuck.

  17. Martha said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

    Roger C.: That explains why my dad always says that! (He was never in the army, but he was in the navy in the ’60s.) Who knows what exactly he was saying, but I always heard it as “dipsty-dumpster.”

    FWIW, as far as I know, I’ve never heard “dumpster fire” used like this, and my first thought was also that it was a euphemism for “clusterfuck.”

  18. JS said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    Also compare “hot mess”.

  19. Levantine said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    ‘Hot mess’ is also used of individual people, though. I can’t imagine anyone saying, ‘John’s a dumpster fire/clusterfuck’.

  20. AG said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    What’s the consensus on capitalizing it? I used to get very annoyed when Word autocorrected dumpster to Dumpster.

  21. Geoff Nunberg said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

    @AG what’s the consensus on capitalizing it?

    The AP Stylebook and many dictionaries still list it as a trademark.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 9:51 pm

    FWIW, this site claims that the AP Stylebook finally accepted as of 2013 that “dumpster” had become generic and could thus be lowercased: http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/2013/05/ap-style-dumpster-nope-not-trademark.html, but the link it provides to an online version of the stylebook is subscriber-only, so I can’t verify the claim.

  23. Rich Rostrom said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 11:00 pm

    One could also note the recent comment by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb) on the two presumptive Presidential nominees: “There are dumpster fires in my town more popular than these two ‘leaders.'”

  24. pj said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 5:58 am

    Do ‘dumpster fire’ situations have any of the same can’t-look-away-even-though-unstoppably-dire quality of what in BrEng call we a ‘car crash’? (Is that also used metaphorically in AmEng?)
    That feels like an idiomatic near-equivalent, for some of these uses at least. Though with less of an overtone of intrinsic worthlessness, perhaps; more something that’s gone badly and irrecoverably wrong from a non-necessarily unpromising start.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 7:10 am

    @ pj – “Car crash” is used in AmEng, in the same way. I wouldn’t say “dumpster fire” has the same connotation of unwilling fascination – on the contrary, it suggests something pretty prosaic.

  26. Rube said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    From The Simpsons:
    Bart: Otto-Man? You’re living in a dumpster?
    Otto: Ho, man, I wish. Dumpster-brand trash bins are top-of-the-line. This is just a Trash-Co waste disposal unit.

  27. Brett said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    @pj, Mr Punch: More idiomatic in American English than “car crash” would be “train wreck.” The terms suggests that an ongoing process (such as the making of a movie) did not end up at all where it was supposed to go (e.g. so that the movie ended up nigh unwatchable)

  28. John Speranza said,

    June 6, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    It seems to me (yes, a dangerous way to begin a statement about usage) that “garbage fire,” “trash fire,” “dumpster fire” and “tire fire” are more or less equally common, at least in the USA-centric online world that I spend most of my time in. Lately, though, I’ve seen this photo used to similar effect, though I’ve (almost?) never seen the photo’s contents depicted in words:

    https://twitter.com/brianbeutler/status/739813589503082496

  29. John Hascall said,

    June 8, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    In which Iowa State’s annual celebration, Veishea, literally and figuratively became a dumpster fire…

    https://i.imgur.com/p2bKmPy.jpg

  30. Mitch H. said,

    June 13, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    The first time I saw “dumpster fire” as a metaphor was around the time of the Iowa caucuses, when somebody described Trump as a “gold-plated dumpster fire”. I took it to mean a disgusting spectacle you couldn’t look away from. Not necessarily a danger – dumpsters aren’t generally up against anything particularly valuable or flammable – but likely to be unpleasant.

  31. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 5:46 am

    “Scientists play with fire aboard trash-filled cargo spacecraft”:

    http://www.planetary.org/blogs/jason-davis/2016/20160614-oa-6-saffire.html

    (Not actually a dumpster fire in space, since the experiment isn’t burning the trash, but I was reminded of this article.)

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