Rubbish

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Richard Roeper, "Election prediction: Electoral votes will add up to Barack Obama victory", Chicago Sun-Times 11/4/2012:

Please understand, we’re not talking about my preference. This is all about the cold hard business of predicting. If you handed me a suitcase of money and sent me to a casino where they allowed wagering on elections and I had to put all of it on one candidate in this race, I wouldn’t hesitate to put that money on Obama.

Of course it’s not Romney’s fault that allies such as Hannity, Limbaugh, Trump and Giuliani seem increasingly shrill and desperate in their criticism of Obama in the last week or so. Of course Romney couldn’t do anything about a force of nature that allowed the president to be presidential while the Mittster was relegated to the sidelines, comparing the massive undertaking on the East Coast with the time when he and his chums had to clean up a high school football field after a big game. (“The field was covered with rubbish and paper goods from people who’d had a big celebration there at the game.” Rubbish?) [emphasis added]

Please understand, we're not talking about election prediction. This is all about the cold hard business of linguistic variation. If you handed me a suitcase of money and sent me to a casino where they allowed wagering on word usage and I had to put it all on one of two candidates for the national origin of someone who described the detritus left in the wake of a party as "rubbish", I wouldn't hesitate to put that money on Britain.*

I believe that this is what  Roeper meant when he wrote "Rubbish?" after the (approximate) quotation from Romney — he was surprised to hear that word, in that context, coming out of the mouth of an American.

The facts seem to support his surprise. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, trash is about 10 times as common as rubbish, whereas in the British National Corpus the relationship is reversed. The exact numbers (expressed as frequency per million words) are these:

COCA BNC
rubbish 1.76 22.81
trash 17.43 2.05

If we assume that the speaker was either British or American, then what we learn about their national origin by encountering the word rubbish can be represented by the Bayes factor

K = Pr(rubbish|British)/Pr(rubbish|American)

This is the probabiity of reaching into the British urn of words and coming up with rubbish, divided by the probability of reaching into the American urn of words and coming up with rubbish. If we accept the corpus-derived estimates that there are 22.81 instances of rubbish per million words in the British case, and 1.76 per million words in the American case, then this becomes

K = (22.81/100000)/(1.76/100000) = 22.81/1.76 = 12.96023

If that's all the evidence we have, and we treat the prior probability of the two nationalities as equal, then the probability that the speaker is British can be estimated as

1/(1+1/12.96023) = 0.928368 = ~ 93%

We can recover the odds from this as

0.928368/(1-0.928368) = 12.96023

or about 13:1.

Of course, Mitt Romney is really an American, so this one piece of evidence is misleading, and I'd lose the suitcase full of money if I were really foolish enough to bet it. And I would deserve to lose it, even if I really didn't know anything about the speaker beyond the word sequences in this one sentence, because there's even stronger evidence in the other direction within the same sentence. At least, there would be, if we had a reliable transcription of what he said:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I remember once we had a-
a football game at my high school and the
football field afterwards was covered with all sorts of
uh rubbish and- and uh
paper goods from people who'd had a big uh celebration there at the game and
there was a group of us that was assigned to clean it up

"My high school"? That phrase occurs 512 times out of  450 million words in COCA, for a rate of 1.14 per million words; it occurs once out of 100 million words in the BNC, for a rate of  0.01 per million words. If we accept these empirical estimates as valid, this gives us

K = (1/100)/(512/450) = 0.008789062

or about 114:1 against.

As Alan Turing noted in the context of the Enigma project during WWII, we can take the sum of the logs of such ratios as a measure of the "weight of evidence" for one hypothesis versus another. If we use log to the base 10, as the Bletchley Park codebreakers did, we get

log10(12.96023)+log10(0.008789062) = -0.9434448

for the case of someone who uses the word "rubbish" but also says "my high school". This gives us a rather different picture of the probability that the speaker was British:

1/(1+1/(10^-0.9434448)) = 0.10226

corresponding to odds of about 0.10226/(1-0.10226) or about 1:9.

[Update -- As a small additional exercise in combining weights of evidence, let's add the evidence from the phrases "football game" and "football field", accepting the COCA and BNC frequencies as the relevant conditional probability estimates:

COCA BNC
football game 2.70 0.29
football field 1.81 0.36

Summing the corresponding log likeihood ratios along with those for "rubbish" and "my high school" gives us

log10(22.81/1.76) + log10(0.01/1.14) + log10(0.29/2.70) + log10(0.36/1.81) = -2.614634

This yields an estimate of the probability that the speaker was British of

1/(1+1/(10^-2.614634)) = 0.002422772

or odds of about 1:412 against.]

A serious attempt to decide on a statistical basis whether a speaker was British vs. American would be more complicated in various ways — it would try to use all the evidence available in transcript and/or recording, it would consider any prior odds available from background information about the choice, it would do a more careful job of estimating probabilities from small counts — but it might well combine different pieces of evidence using a version of this method, which is provably optimal if the sources of evidence are independent and the probability estimates are reliable.


*In fact I would be foolish to place so much weight on one piece of evidence; please chalk this whole paragraph up to rhetorical over-reaching. Seriously, I was thinking about writing something on the great Chin-Stroking-vs.-Number-Crunching debate, but I got distracted by rubbish.

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93 Comments »

  1. phanmo said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 5:47 am

    Interesting… As a Canadian, I tend to think of "rubbish" as British and "trash" as American; I would normally say "garbage".

    I think that there are technical differences (maybe between food waste and other types) but I have no idea what they might be (and I haven't bothered to look ;) ).

  2. Martin B said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 6:00 am

    I understand that you are only looking at the cases of US and UK identities, but since we Australians say both 'rubbish' and 'high school' perhaps we can claim him.

    Only problem is we don't want to: http://www.smh.com.au/national/australian-voters-would-deliver-obama-landslide-victory-20120827-24wpp.html

  3. Simon K said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 6:02 am

    There are plenty of other clues in there that the speaker is American and not British. I don't have access to COCA and BNC to check, but I would wager a large sum that both "football game" and "football field" are much more common in American English than in British English, where the equivalent terms would be "football match" and "football pitch". (We'd be talking about a different kind of football as well, or course).

    [(myl) But you DO have access to COCA and BNC, thanks to Mark Davies! Just go to http://corpus.byu.edu and do what comes naturally...]

  4. LDavidH said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    @phanmo: I was wondering where "garbage" would fit in this equation (as a ESL speaker, I already "knew" that 'trash' is AmE, whereas 'rubbish' is BrE).
    So come on, tell the world: where is the garbage, where is the rubbish, and where's the trash??

  5. Joe Green said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 8:27 am

    When I started reading this, I thought the whole issue was going to be over "rubbish and paper goods". What exactly might "paper goods" be (or indeed not be)? How do they differ from "rubbish"? Why did Romney feel the need for the partial tautology?

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    I believe that what is usually called a "rummage sale" in the United States is more commonly known as a "rubbish sale" in Britain, which makes me wonder if "rubbish" has a somewhat different meaning over there. I certainly wouldn't go somewhere to buy rubbish.

  7. Andrew Smith said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    @Ralph: I've never heard of a rubbish sale (unless you mean a sale that wasn't very good!). I expect you mean a jumble sale, and Wikipedia seems to agree. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumble_sale

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    When I was a young child in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1947 to 1952, we had a large burlap sack in the garage that was designated for rubbish and a metal can in some sort of well with a cover over it that was designated for garbage. The latter was for food waste. The rubbish bag was for mixed paper and metal. Plastic packaging didn't exist, but I suppose it would have gone in the rubbish bag. (Newspapers were stacked separately and saved for school paper drives.) The trash men collected the rubbish and garbage every week. The rubbish went to the municipal incinerator (yes, with the metal in it, which was separated out after burning and sold as scrap). I'm not sure what happened with the garbage. It may have gone into the same truck to the incinerator but was stored separately by homeowners to keep rats out of it.

    The terms rubbish and garbage were used by other families as well. After municipal incinerators were closed in favor of sanitary landfills and in-ground garbage cans were abandoned in favor of plastic trash bags, use of the word rubbish seems to have declined.

    The ngram comparison of rubbish, garbage, and trash is interesting: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=trash%2C+rubbish%2C+garbage&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=17&smoothing=3

  9. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    I (Australian) think of "rubbish" as the inclusive term, and "garbage" as what non-recyclable rubbish becomes once it is transferred to the Council-provided outdoor bins. ("Trash" means I'm writing poetry and need a word I can find a rhyme for.)

    Martin B says that Australians say "high school", and I don't disagree, but I would add not often in my experience. "Secondary school" is surely much more common, especially in formal to neutral registers. (Of course, I went to an area school.)

  10. Andy Averill said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    Don't British people also use "rubbish" metaphorically, as a politer substitute for "bullshit"? Especially as an interjection (I'm picturing the House of Commons). That might affect the relative numbers. Americans also use "trash" metaphorically, but in a different way ("trailer trash", etc).

    Maybe rubbish is a regional thing in the US? What does DARE have to say?

  11. GAC said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    @Andy: I was about to mention that many Americans do say rubbish only in the metaphorical sense. In fact, when I was younger and inexperienced about British English, I thought that the word's only meaning was "nonsense".

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    As an American, I consider "trash" to imply a value judgment whereas "rubbish" seems neutral. "covered with rubbish" conjures up an image of densely scattered litter while "covered with trash" introduces an element of disgust or disapproval to the litter.

  13. Acilius said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    @Dick Margulis & @Andy Averill: The high school Mr Romney is reminiscing about was in southeastern Michigan, not so very far from Cleveland, Ohio. So you may well be onto something.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    When I was growing up in suburban Cleveland, in the '60s and '70s, we used "garbage" as the generic word. I have some feeling that "trash" is for paper and plastic. "Rubbish" was a word other people used.

    Here in New Mexico, "trash" seems to be the generic term. Is "garbage" as the generic term Northern and "trash" Midland and Southern, by any chance?

  15. Nate said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    If you're going to go Bayes, you might as well include a prior of the relative populations of the two countries. (I'm thinking of Kahneman and Tversky's work on the "representativeness heuristic"). It's a bit too simple of a prior, since there are speakers of AmE outside the US, speakers of BrE outside the UK, and speakers of other languages in both countries, but if we take the approximate speaker populations to be 300 million (US) and 60 million (UK), we get 5:1 odds (83% probability) that the speaker is from the US. If we were to take these odds and combine them with just the "rubbish" odds, we get:

    10^(log10(0.2) + log10(12.96)) = 2.59

    This converts to a probability of 28% that Romney's from the US.

    If we also factor in the "high school", this jumps up:

    10^(log10(0.2) + log10(12.96) + log10(.0088)) = .023

    Or about 98% chance R is from US

    [log-odds are summed in a format that represents odds against being US to be consistent w/ myl]

    [(myl) We could also add weight-of-evidence factors for "football game" (2.7/MW COCA, 0.29 BNC) and "football field" (1.81/MW COCA, 0.36 BNC) ...]

  16. GeorgeW said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    My (SoAmE speaker) rubbish is intangible and metaphorical, my garage tends to be wet and smelly, my trash tends to be waste paper and the like.

  17. Ted said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    I agree with Jerry Friedman that there is likely some regional variation. In NY, garbage is the generic term; we have garbage cans, whence we take out the garbage, which is then collected by the garbage men. (The same appears to be the case in Stockbridge, MA, where, havin' all that room, seein' as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time. But note that Arlo is a native New Yorker.)

    As an adult, I've found myself referring more frequently to trash. But that may be a result of cross-regional pollution.

  18. Andy Averill said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    @Ted, agreed, my garbage tends to be on the wet side and has to be kept in a container. Trash can be piled up by the curb for pickup. I don't think I've ever used the word rubbish. But my regional background is too mixed up to be much help.

    And we should probably add class to the factors involved. Americans born into money, who go to private schools, have been known to adopt British expressions. This is probably what Richard Roeper was on about…

  19. Ted said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    Andy: I've used rubbish, I suspect, but only ever ironically.

    And, to your earlier point, I agree that rubbish in BrE is used metaphorically as a dismissive noun, which isn't the same as our metaphorical trash. I think, though, we (or at least I) would find it unremarkable if someone described an argument he or she disagreed with as garbage.

    Also, BrE uses rubbish as a verb. In that sense, we would use trash, not garbage.

  20. RolyH said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    As a child in England (during the war) we put the rubbish in the dustbin for the dustmen to pick up. We also had waste paper baskets for waste paper. When we moved to Canada (Québec and Ontario) it all became garbage. To me trash is definitely an Americanism.

  21. Seonachan said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Growing up north of Boston I heard rubbish pretty frequently as a synonym for garbage or trash, mostly from my teachers and friends' parents (who would be roughly in Mitt's cohort). I don't know if the Brahmins used it too, but he could have picked it up when he moved out this way.

  22. Kyle said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    All four of my grandparents (Boston-area Massachusettsians, middle/working-class, born in the 1920s/30s) certainly said/say "rubbish," meaning, roughly, "non-food waste." I've probably said it myself, though generally I would say "trash." It doesn't really surprise me to hear Mitt Romney saying it at all. Rubbish as an adjective or verb seems very non-U.S. to me but rubbish as a noun is just a little old-fashioned, like "slacks."

  23. Michael W said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    I recall a moment of confusion when a visiting Londoner mentioned she was surprised to see a 'rubber sheep' on the streets. This was in San Francisco, so the American interpretation was almost viable. It was what I would call a pile of garbage (or trash). I find the two to be very close, with trash having a slightly greater implication of deliberate disposal.

    @GeorgeW – you may want to clean our your garage.

  24. Dick Margulis said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    One more datum: A year or two ago, I heard a flight attendant (in her thirties or forties, I'd guess), come down the plane's aisle asking passengers to put their rubbish in the bag. This struck me as unusual enough that I thought to ask where she was from, and she said Texas.

  25. pj said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    @Ted

    Also, BrE uses rubbish as a verb. In that sense, we would use trash, not garbage.

    But rubbish as a verb comes, I think, from the 'dismissive noun': it's to dismiss as nonsense, to disparage, pour scorn on. (For instance, I might rubbish the suggestion above that the British have 'rubbish sales'. If I weren't far too polite.)
    Can 'trash' as a verb function equivalently in AmEng? I think of it only as meaning to destroy or damage – to reduce to the quality of refuse, rather than to decry as nonsense.

  26. Rodger C said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

    Let's not forget Walt Kelly's "rubbage."

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    I found the NP "urn of words" very odd and maybe BrEng-sounding, but a bit of googling suggests it may be a fixed phrase (perhaps with a literary allusion originally behind it) current in myl's academic circles. I find it a bit puzzling because to the best of my recollection the various parables I've heard intended to illustrate statistics usually involve taking things out of drawers or jars or various other sorts of containers, but not urns. Do AmEng speakers these days typically use urns (bracketing the ancient kind seen in art museums) to contain anything other than the ashes of deceased relatives? I understand the notion that an "urn" is presumptively opaque whereas a "jar" might be presumptively glass/transparent (and thus less useful for this sort of no-peeking

    [(myl) The term "urn" for the receptable that one draws chances from is a fairly standard one in statistics. The Wikipedia entry tells us that this goes bck to Jacob Bernoulli's 1713 Ars Conjectandi:

    Bernoulli used the Latin word urna, which primarily means a clay vessel, but is also the term used in ancient Rome for a vessel of any kind for collecting ballots or lots; the present-day Italian word for ballot box is still urna.

    On both sides of the Atlantic, models that depend only on the counts of lexical tokens (typically unigrams but sometimes N-grams for higher values of N) are generally called "bag of words" models. But I thought "urn" would be more familiar to non-NLP types than "bag" in this context...

    I don't recall seeing "jar" used in this context. I guess that "hat" might be another possibility for the metaphorical statistical vessel.]

  28. The other Mark P said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    As a New Zealand speaker I would refer to the stuff on the football field as "rubbish".

    People here certainly use the word "trash" but very, very rarely for rubbish. People are "trash" (especially in phrases such as "white trash", "trailer trash" etc).

    If you are "talking rubbish" then what you are saying is wrong. If you are "talking trash" then you are being rude.

    I don't believe the two are synonyms at all in norm NZ usage.

  29. The other Mark P said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    As a New Zealand speaker I would refer to the stuff on the football field as "rubbish".

    People here certainly use the word "trash" but very, very rarely for rubbish. People are "trash" (especially in phrases such as "white trash", "trailer trash" etc).

    If you are "talking rubbish" then what you are saying is wrong. If you are "talking trash" then you are being rude.

    I don't believe the two are synonyms at all in norm NZ usage.

  30. hector said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Another Canadian piping in. I take out "the garbage," "the recycling," and "the compost." I use "rubbish" and "trash" only in idioms, like "what a load of rubbish" and "talking trash."

  31. David L said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

    @The other Mark P: it's true that talking trash and talking rubbish are two different things, but if you are talking trash about someone's athletic abilities you are rubbishing their skills, are you not?

  32. Mr Punch said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    In my youth ('50s, Boston area) "rubbish" was widely used as a general term, but it largely been replaced by "trash". "Garbage" to me has always meant primarily food waste (and therefore fit in a "pail"rather than a "barrel") – but the barrels did used to be emptied by "garbagemen," now replaced by "trash collectors."

    BTW, I have heard a (supposedly) native-born US Secretary of State respond to a hypothetical with, "You have painted a serpent with feathers." Where did Al Haig really come from?

  33. Chandra said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    @GeorgeW – Then perhaps you should open the garage door and air it out. :)

    I'm a Canadian with British parentage who has lived in the States, and I use "garbage" most often, but "trash" wouldn't be too much of a stretch. "Rubbish" definitely sounds Britishy.

  34. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    Hmm… I wonder where the related term "refuse", to my ear a decidedly highfalutin Br.E. toned word for trash, or garbage, would fit in?

    I could hear Wodeshouse's Jeeves, for instance, perhaps saying, "Sire, I respectfully refuse to handle that odoriferous refuse."

    Moving along.

    Here in L.A. with our three distinctive heavy-duty jumbo plastic containers for sundry trash/ garbage and recyclables, (black, green, and sky blue), we no longer refer to them as garbage cans, per se, but "bins", which, to me, also has a Brit E., or at least slightly arcane air about it.

    I guess there are some communities in the so-called developed Western world who still put their 'refuse' in trash, or garbage cans. "Cans" being an apt term, since these were traditionally, for decades, made from galvanized metal, typical of most cans, in general.

    I recall as a youngster growing up in Toronto, Canada in the '50s, folks would refer to that designated, stall-like area in the basement where the coal-delivery guy dumped his monthly load of coal, as the "coal bin".

    @Roger C. I trust cartoonist Walt Kelly's "rubbage" had nothing to do with "frottage". Wouldn't want to 'rub' the brilliant creator of Pogo the wrong way, would we? "Rubbage" is likely a melding of the words "rubbish" and "garbage"; likely more of the verbal, hyperbloic variety down in ye olde swamp, i.e., trash talk, than actual rubbish, or litter. Just sayin'.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    If someone were translating Bernoulli's Latin afresh into idiomatic modern AmEng, I'm not sure that "urn" would be the best rendering for "urna" (picking by default the word in an English dictionary that does etymologically descend from the Latin word in question is a recipe for suboptimal translation) but the statistical profession is entitled to its own traditional jargon, and my lack of knowledge of it is simply a reminder of the latentable fact that in the latter part of the last century one could acquire a B.A. in linguistics from a reputable university (and a law degree from another one) without ever having taken a single solitary formal class in statistics.

    The new Coptic Pope has just been selected by having a blindfolded boy draw his name (out of a selection of three finalists) from a container variously described in the media as a bowl, jar, chalice, urn, and probably other things (I stopped skimming stories after finding one, from a non-U.S. source, that used "urn"). Someone might be able to do some ad hoc corpus work collating the different news stories from different parts of the Anglosphere to learn something about patterns and/or variation in current idiomatic usages for containers employed for that sort of formalized/ritualized random selection process.

    Back to the rubbish-etc. question, it seems like there ought to be an isogloss out there for the distribution of garbage can v. trash can in AmEng. What do people in Eastern New England (or elsewhere) who naturally use "rubbish" for what you might put inside it call that sort of container?

  36. Acilius said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    @Mr Punch: So perhaps Mr Romney picked up the word during his years in Boston.

    As for General Haig, surely everyone knows that he was a native speaker of Bureaucrat.

  37. Theodore said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    @Andy Averill:

    I'm a 20-year reader of the Sun-Times, so quite familiar with Roeper's column. I think you're right on with suggesting class as a factor. Roeper is probably unaware of the word as a regionalism in the US and thinks of it as strictly an upperclass thing.

  38. AEve said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:41 pm

    As a midwesterner, I'd think that the incredulous "rubbish?" in the quote refers to the relative mildness of the word. Rubbish is a minor inconvenience. The wreckage left in the wake of a hurricane is massive. I originally responded to the quote, like Mr Roeper, with indignation, because the word choice seems like it is trivializing the destruction on the east coast. Note that Roeper himself has used "rubbish" in this dismissive sort of way in the past, in a much less important situation: http://www.suntimes.com/news/roeper/9125610-452/world-wide-web-holds-all-manner-of-rubbish.html

    I don't believe he's unfamiliar with the term – it just isn't strong enough for the situation in his dialect or mine. Now, whether it has the same dismissive connotations in British English is another question.

    [(myl) I wondered about that interpretation, which also makes sense. But in any event, I don't think Roeper was unfamiliar with the term, just that it struck him as an odd one for an American to use to describe stuff left over from an outdoor party. The whole hurricane-aftermath:party-cleanup comparison is also arguably trivializing and somewhat offensive.]

  39. Lazar said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    @Mr Punch: Another Britticism native to Eastern New England is "mum", rather than "mom".

  40. GeorgeW said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    J.W. Brewer: "The new Coptic Pope has just been selected by having a blindfolded boy draw his name (out of a selection of three finalists) from a container variously described in the media as a bowl, jar, chalice, urn, and probably other things (I stopped skimming stories after finding one, from a non-U.S. source, that used "urn"). "

    The Arabic expression I saw used was 'kaas shaffaafa' which would probably be literally translated as a 'clear cup' (or maybe bowl).

    (Maybe, it would save us a lot of money and effort if we were to do this tommorow here.)

  41. Martin B said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    Adrian: interesting. I'm from Qld, my partner from Vic. We just had a comparison of usage. I expect that "high school" vs "secondary school" depends on region, age and public/private school background. Suffice to say that to my ears "secondary school" sounds very formal and uncommon compared to "high school".

    Otherwise agree, and noting that the metaphorical "rubbish" and "trash" as a verb are both well known and used in the senses described by others including our NZ cousins.

  42. Ø said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    Alex, Jeeves would say "Sir", not "Sire". And when refusing to comply with a request (issuing what Bertie learned to call a nolle prosequi) he would probably avoid such a stark work as "refuse", and would certainly not call attention verbally to the respectfulness of his refusal.

  43. Hugo Quené said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    There seems to be a typo in the enumerator part of the second formula (22.81 per million), most likely intended as
    K = (22.81/1000000)/(1.76/1000000)

  44. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    'High school' is used in parts of Britain as well, notably in Scotland. However, my feeling is that Brits don't actually say either 'high school' or 'secondary school' that often, because in many contexts where Americans would say 'high school' we would just say 'school'. Since 'school' in British usage does not normally include college/university, we would only have to say 'high/secondary school' in contexts where we needed to make it clear we don't mean primary school.

  45. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    @ Ø

    Quite right, old chap (?), "Sir" would have been the appropriate address, not "Sire". I stand corrected. How dėclassé of me.

    Clearly you are more of an aficionado of decorum of Wodehouse's peculiar high-society world than I.

    I was merely trying to make the point that the word "refuse", meaning "trash", has a bit of a British hoity-toity air about, 'tis all.

  46. J Lee said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    in hawaii the receptacle is invariably 'rubbish can' which seems to be a frankenstein term exclusive to the creole spoken there

  47. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

    If I call it "culch" what's the probability that I'm from Maine?

  48. Dave K said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

    There's a good possibility that Romney thought of and rejected all the synonyms he could think of. "Garbage" at least to me, implies smelly stuff that has already been discarded–if he had said the field was strewn with garbage, I'd think someone had emptied a few garbage cans on it. "Trash" would be off-limits since Romney's probably had to train himself not to use phrases like "white trash" and the prohibition carried over. And of course, he couldn't just come out and say "strewn with all sorts of crap".

  49. John said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    Growing up in Western MA in a middle class family in the 1950s, we had a rubbish barrel at the back of the yard. It would be used to collect non-food waste. The trash or rubbish contained within would be burnt on a weekly basis, with the ashes and tin cans collected by the trash collectors monthly.

    The city had a large second-, third-, and fourth-generation Irish population.

  50. rwmg said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one). Indeed. When I was growing up in SE England, we still had single-sex secondary schools with grammar schools for boys and high schools for girls.

  51. Rod Johnson said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    @Rodger C: thanks for mentioning "rubbage." Growing up, my best friend's family called it that (they also said "chimbley" for "chimney"–never knew what either of those things indicated).

  52. Rod Johnson said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    Wordnik on rubbage.

  53. J. Goard said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    Romney has a weird anachronistic-seeming lexicon the cause of which I can't always determine. The thing that bugs me the most is the discourse marker Why…, where I would say Well. I might have bought that twenty years ago from someone of my grandparents' generation, but from a guy of my parents' generation it strikes my as pandering to a phony sort of Leave-it-to-Beaver purity nostalgia. Rubbish from an American feels somewhat the same way — "I'm so squeaky clean, I can't even bring myself to say "garbage" or "trash"!")

  54. J. Goard said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:03 am

    Just remembered that my hometown (rural Northern California) had a sign on the way to the dump reading "Loads of rubbish shall be covered." I had often thought about using a picture of it in an introductory class, but never did.

    Just found a picture here:

    http://loadsofrubbish.com/why-rubbish/

  55. Martha said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:07 am

    J Lee, thank you for mentioning Hawaii. While reading this, I was thinking about a girl from Hawaii I used to work with who would always talk about taking out the "rubbish." "Rubbish" had always seemed to me to be a word people would use if they were trying to sound fancy (either earnestly or jokingly), or else something "old people" would use, so it surprised me that she used it regularly. I never got a satisfactory answer from her as to whether that was the word people used there.

    I normally say "garbage" and tend to see "trash" as reserved for describing a person or something that is being compared to garbage. But I do have a sense that trash is a less stinky type of garbage.

  56. Joe Green said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    Fascinating though the rubbish/garbage/trash trope is, I'm still baffled by this "paper goods". To me, that's what I would *buy*, not what I would leave behind. That is, it describes for example paper plates (and paper hats? I don't know what kind of paper goods one would take/bring to a U.S. football game in the first place) in their pristine state, not in their stained and crumpled state of aftermath. I really have no idea what specific kind of articles fabricated from paper Romney was referring to here, nor why he would choose that particular phrase. What's wrong with a nice simple "paper"? And why is this to be distinguished from "rubbish"?

  57. RobertL said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:47 am

    I'm also from Queensland, Australia, and we definitely only ever referred to school as "high school". "Secondary school" was a formal term. We knew it, we had a Qld Board of Secondary School Education, for example, but even the sign out the front said Pine Rivers State HIgh School. Everybody referred to high school rather than secondary school.

    By the way, this sort of post is what I love about LL. I can while away several minutes learning about the regional variations in rubbish / trash / garbage and so on. Fantastic!

  58. J. Goard said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 2:48 am

    I really have no idea what specific kind of articles fabricated from paper Romney was referring to here, nor why he would choose that particular phrase. What's wrong with a nice simple "paper"?

    Maybe toilet paper, thrown as a prank?

    I've heard Mormons self-censor stranger things before.

  59. Picky said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:20 am

    In my BrE the thing the rubbish is put out in is a dustbin, and the people who collect it with startling efficiency are dustmen (they seem all to be men, women having more sense than to do such an arduous job, but perhaps they will some day be dustpeople). I'm not sure what their official job title is but there was a time when their employers callen them "refuse collectors", which shows Alex was right about the British hoity-toitydom of "refuse".

  60. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:30 am

    @Picky: lucky you; where I live (Hampshire – the old variety), there are no dustbins, we just put our black rubbish sacks out by the kerb and it's then collected at an early hour.

  61. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:36 am

    @rmwg and others: I'm in old Hampshire, southern UK. My son who is 10 and in Year 6, the final year of junior school, has just applied to a single-sex grammar school (= senior school, i.e. secondary school) in Bournemouth; they still exist in some parts of the UK. My daughter is in Year 8, i.e. the second year of senior school/secondary school; I can't recall her ever calling it "high school", but I'll ask her if anybody else ever does.

    As an ESL speaker, I do find all this fascinating – to think that you all imagine that you speak the same language… :-)

  62. John Walden said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:45 am

    "I'm with Joe Green on the strangeness of "paper goods". It sounds like the name of an aisle in a supermarket.

    Litter" is a useful word; It pretty much has to be on the ground and have been dropped by people. I see it in my mind's eye as mostly paper or plastic (when it's not in the context of cat litter, or a bed on slaves' shoulders).

    I wonder how long is taken to peg somebody as an AmE or BrE speaker when reading a transcript of their speech, or their writing. It never seems to take long. There's both a familiarity (from films, novels and lyrics) and an oddness (I'd never say it like that).

    It was probably when I wrote "aisle" and not "row".

  63. Joe Green said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    @J. Goard: toilet paper, eh? That's quite plausible.

    @John Walden: ah yes, now litter is surely applicable to everything to which Romney was referring. Easy to overlook such an obvious word when being showered with rubbish etc (if you see what I mean). As for pegging someone easily, what about all the ex-pats (in either direction)? See lynneguist's ponderings (separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com) for example.

  64. Tantric Temple said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 5:44 am

    Since 'school' in British usage does not normally include college/university, we would only have to say 'high/secondary school' in contexts where we needed to make it clear we don't mean primary school.

  65. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 6:52 am

    A few additional notes: firstly, I'm from South Australia, and as I said before I went to an area school (i.e. a school with both primary and secondary educational facilities on the same grounds). So to me, "primary" and "secondary" are phases of education, rather than places.

    Re "litter" — I remember as a young child (in Britain, back then, actually) seeing bins with the letter "L" on them and thinking it ought to be "R" for rubbish.

    Re "urn" — in Australia this usually means the thing you boil and maintain hot water in. But, not being a complete bunch of loonies, we can understand from context that an urn of words has little to do with hot water.

  66. Boudica said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 7:43 am

    @Dan Lufkin: "If I call it "culch" what's the probability that I'm from Maine?"

    A great word that i've picked up from my Mainer mother-in-law and her father!

  67. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 7:44 am

    Oh yes, how could I forget about "litter" – mostly dry rubbish in public places!?

  68. Nick Lamb said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    "Litter" specifically shouldn't be there. If I drop this empty Coca-Cola can in the street it is litter, because Coca-Cola cans are not supposed to be dropped in the street. Indeed littering is a crime, albeit a very minor one. But if I put the can into a receptacle expressly provided for that purpose it isn't litter although it's still rubbish, trash and garbage to me.

    At the weekend I attended a city procession by torch light followed by a bonfire and fireworks, though I noted that Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot was never mentioned – perhaps we'd rather not remember executing people for treason after all. The torches were engineered to burn brightly for about an hour and then extinguish before they could burn the hands of the marching public, who found themselves standing in a large field watching fireworks with a now useless charred wooden stub in one hand. Without a doubt the organisers considered that providing suitable flame retardant containers for people to safely dispose of their torches was not practical and they will have planned a massive clean-up operation (maybe they can draft Mitt to help) after the sun comes up. Under these circumstances are the pieces of wood scattered across the field "litter" or only rubbish?

  69. Ellen K. said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    In most cases we wouldn't use "school" for a college or university here in the U.S. either. The only cases where it would be used is in the name of a part of a university, like the [University Name] School of Dentistry; or else sometimes in saying "my school", which would only be used when context makes it clear that college/university is meant. "High school" would be used to differentiate from elementary school and jr. high, not college.

    Or at least that's true in my part of the U.S. (the middle).

  70. chh said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    @Dan Lufkin

    I think 'culch' puts you either in Maine or somewhere in the UK, but low probability elsewhere in the States. Much like 'manky' and intransitive 'staving'. :)

  71. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    Wait, if "rubbish" is current in Hawaii (which is news to me but seems verified by multiple sources upthread) and Romney didn't move to eastern Mass until he was a grown-up and the usage there was passing out of fashion among younger people, maybe he's been lying about his biography and was really secretly born and raised in Hawaii? That would be a really awesome conspiracy theory (especially once you've worked out a subtheory as to why people born in Hawaii are constitutionally ineligible to be president).

  72. Cameron said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    @Ellen K.

    I think the default sense of "school" in the US refers in many contexts, at least when post-school-age adults are conversing, specifically to college/university.

    If you ask a college-educated American adult a question like "where did you go to school?" they will in almost all cases respond with the name of their undergraduate institution. If you are in an academic context, and both interlocutors are academics, someone might very well respond to that question with the name of the university where they earned their PhD.

    If you ask a non-college-educated American "where did you go to school?" you'd probably get an answer along the lines of "well, I never went to college . . ."

  73. Joe Green said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    @chh: I didn't know that "manky" had currency outside the UK. Well well. But what is "staving" (transitive or intransitive)? I've never heard "culch" here either.

  74. Joe Green said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    Obviously I know (and use) "staving off". But that's presumably not what you meant.

  75. chh said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    …sorry if this is now an egregious digression.

    It was actually hard to find any evidence for the 'staving' I was talking about.

    One citation is here, attributed to 19th century Southern England (they gloss it as an adjective, which is probably consistent with what I've heard, come to think of it):

    http://books.google.com/books?id=5GpLcC4a5fAC&pg=PA1363&lpg=PA1363&dq=stavin+slang&source=bl&ots=2yiPP6fmw5&sig=EfYzvZ-BVMES5bdp-hlKzQNx5yM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5MGZUKW6CrCL0QHixoCoCQ&ved=0CEMQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=staving&f=false

    And another is here in what looks like a collection of slang from the old West…
    http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-slang-s.html

    The same list has a related item that was used a lot where I grew up in Maine- "rip staver"
    http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-slang-r.html

    All those terms were usually used to describe parties or other events that were exciting and lasted late into the night.

  76. Chad Nilep said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

    @Ellen K. @Cameron

    I did a quick search for treatment of the words 'school' and 'university' in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. The write-up was too long for a blog comment, so I put it here:
    http://nagoya-u.academia.edu/ChadNilep/Posts

    Bottom line: the word 'school' refers to colleges and universities as such, as well as to divisions within universities and to elementary and secondary schools.

  77. chh said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    Oops, in Green's dictionary "SE" means Standard English, and I conveyed the facts about that entry a little wrong. Anyway, it is the sense that I was looking for, or at least a very closely related one.

  78. Nathan Myers said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    "Rubbish" is the word in Hawaii, technically, but it is only ever pronounced as "dah robbeesh", i.e. prefixed with the definite article and without one schwa. Oddly, the schwa is scrupulously avoided in this mostly-English vocabulary. (At least it seems odd to me.) When Hawaiians make fun of haoles (glottal stop lost) trying to mimic the creole, they substitute in exaggerated schwa vowels and rhoticisms.

  79. John Walden said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:36 am

    Digressing on "manky". I wouldn't be surprised if its meaning as "failed, lacking" was on both sides of the Atlantic, as an Anglicised spelling of "manqué". I'd be very surprised if, and interested to know how, its originally (I believe) Polari meaning of "dirty, sordid" managed to cross the pond.

  80. Joe Green said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    @Nathan Myers: schwa, what schwa? I never cease to be amazed at the abundance of schwas in AmE compared to BrE. Are you really saying that the "i" is a schwa here?

    @John Walden: while being perfectly comfortable with the notion that "manky" comes from "manqué" (attractive, whether proven or not) I see no need to suggest an alternative derivation for its meaning of "dirty" (which incidentally is to me its only meaning; I'm sure I've never heard anyone use it to mean "failed"). I've always thought that the dirtiness simply arises from forgetful neglect. Intriguing to have a completely different background suggested.

  81. Rodger C said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    @Joe Green: I pronounce "rubbish" with a mid-high central vowel that I think is phonemically a schwa before a palatal. As someone noted here (?), there's a lot of allophony in AmE.

  82. John Walden said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    I explained myself very badly. The "dirty, sordid", meaning of manky, the only one I know too, seems definitely to have its origin in Polari. Any number of online sources agree, some mentioning the Polari, for example:

    with:manky [ˈmæŋkɪ]
    adj mankier, mankiest

    Slang
    1. worthless, rotten, or in bad taste
    2. dirty, filthy, or bad
    [via Polari from Italian mancare to be lacking]

    and some not:

    manky/ˈmaŋki/

    adjective (mankier, mankiest)
    Brit. informal
    1 inferior; worthless.
    2 dirty and unpleasant.
    – origin 1950s: prob. from obs. mank ‘mutilated, defective’, from OFr. manque, from L. mancus ‘maimed’.

    What that is doing across the Atlantic I don't know. But that earlier meaning of "mutilated, defective" (Manco means "one-armed" in Spanish) could be around in Maine. We'd have to ask Chh what he/she meant by

    " ….'culch' puts you either in Maine or somewhere in the UK, but low probability elsewhere in the States. Much like 'manky' and intransitive 'staving'. :)"

    and what "manky" means in Maine.

  83. Joe Green said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    @John Walden: interesting… your proffered etymologies mention on the one hand Italian mancare "to be lacking" and on the other OFr. manque from L. mancus "mutilated". The Italian seems to be plausibly linked by meaning with Fr. manquer (if you forget something then you presumably lack it) but I'm no etymologist; The OFr. seems less plausibly linked by meaning. I think I'm now thoroughly confused by what appear to be two different but similar meanings attributable to two different but similar etymologies. Parallel evolution or just cross-talk?

  84. Nathan Myers said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

    Joe: In "the rubbish", AmE standard, I count two full-on schwas, and an indistinct third vowel that could be anything from short "e" through "i". Are you suggesting that communities other than Hawaiians pronounce that with no schwas? Who, and how?

  85. Joe Green said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

    @Nathan Myers: I'm not merely suggesting but asserting that in the UK "rubbish" has no schwas. It rhymes with "rub" "fish". Indisputably (I hope). Speaking as an amateur.

    I'm not suggesting anything at all about any AmE accent, though. (Hmm well I suppose I'm hoping that there is no schwa in either of those single-syllable words. No doubt the expert linguists here can help us draw boundaries between the schwa and other not-terribly-well-stressed vowels. And is there even such a thing as *the* schwa, or does its definition also vary between accents?)

  86. Ted said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    In the US (or at least my experience of current common AmE usage), "fish" has a short i, but "ish" in an unaccented syllable is generally transformed into something that, if not quite a schwa, is rather closer to a schwa than to a short i. So, absent some particular reason to emphasize the lack of perfect concordance that -ish connotes, words like rubbish, sheepish, standoffish, etc. don't quite rhyme with fish or wish or supper dish. (That's my amateur view, anyway; myl could undoubtedly give us a far more accurate technical explanation.)

  87. mollymooly said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    @Adrian Morgan

    Re "litter" — I remember as a young child (in Britain, back then, actually) seeing bins with the letter "L" on them and thinking it ought to be "R" for rubbish.

    Indeed, "litter" seems to have broadened from "carelessly tossed rubbish" to "rubbish which the non-civic-minded are inclined to carelessly toss, but the civic-minded dispose of properly". If this broader sense were restricted to the lexeme "litter bin", it might be explained away as a semantically unusual type of compounding/attribution. However, google "take your litter with you" to see absolute usage. I have the misgiving that 'if I take it with me, it's not "litter"'; OTOH I feel that an alternative like "take your rubbish with you" might be less transparent in contexts like signage.

  88. LDavidH said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    And what is this "culch"? My OED says it's a variant spelling of "cultch" which refers to the stones etc that make up an oyster bed – but that surely isn't what @chh and @Dan Lufkin are discussing?

  89. Joe Green said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    @LDavidH: I think it's taking the idea of the deliberate scattering of small objects to form a covering layer on the seabed and extending it to mean "a general scattering of small pieces of detritus" in a more general context i.e. in this case litter. Well that's my guess.

  90. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

    @LDavidH & Joe Green — Culch is one of those words that I never saw spelled, so the adventitious "t" was a surprise to me. I note that it also appears as "culsh" in Warrack"s Concise Scots Dictionary. I think I got it from my grandparents whose idiolect combined the best features of Scots with those of Maine.

  91. un malpaso said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    As a Southern USA urbanite, I say "garbage" too. A little less often than "trash", which serves as my go-to generic term for household waste products. "Garbage" has a hint of vileness to it that I like to use when said garbage is particularly smelly or offensive.
    I parse "rubbish" as (depending on the context and accent) either British or American upper-crust snobbish. (Interesting how all of those rhyme with "rubbish.")

  92. Joe Green said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    generic term for household waste products

    Extending this apparently endless source of fascination, then, what do people call the under-sink macerator (which seems such a prominent feature of US kitchens, on TV at least, but is I think relatively rare in the UK; what does that say about our respective consumptions?) and does its name correlate well with what gets put into it?

  93. John Duffy said,

    February 26, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    Some observations:

    Secondary schools in England were for the 11+ age group. During the late 60s and 70s, to cope with the baby boom of the time, some local authorities moved from an infant/junior/secondary system to a first/middle/high school system. These have mostly been phased out now, but people use high or secondary interchangeably, without realising the original difference.

    In 59 years in the UK, I never heard the word "culch". I can't speak for the Scots.

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