The what of history?

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Marin Cogan, "Payroll tax deal: Will House frosh comply?", Politico 12/22/2011, quoting Mo Brooks (R Alabama):

“It is most unfortunate that so many elected officials in Washington have a greater focus on November 2012’s elections than on sound public policy or advancing America’s interests. Both the House and Senate plans are fiscally reckless and should be deposited on the dump heap of history,” he said.

Google Books has 36 results for "dump heap of history". But I felt that this metaphor has usually been expressed in other words, and Google Books confirms:

trash heap of history 530
dust heap of history 493
ash heap of history 482
trash can of history 458
dust bin of history 438
scrap heap of history 432
rubbish heap of history 414
dust pile of history 231
dung heap of history 124

And so on…  (In each case, I've given the number of citations actually presented by the search, not the number given on the first page of hits as the approximate count.)

What's the original source? Or is this a sort of folk-metaphor with many origins or re-inventions?

The Wikipedia entry for Ash heap of history tells us that

The ash heap of history (or often garbage heap of history or dustbin of history) is a figurative place to where objects such as persons, events, artifacts, ideologies, etc. are relegated when they are forgotten or marginalized in history.

The expression—or something like it—was coined by Leon Trotsky in response to the Mensheviks walking out of the Second Congress of Soviets, on October 25, 1917 (Julian calendar), thereby enabling the Bolsheviks to establish their dominance. Trotsky declared: "Go out where you belong—into the ash heap of history." A more dramatic version of this event puts Trotsky as saying: “'You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!'"

It has since been used in both the direct and the ironic sense in political and nonpolitical contexts.

But according to Charles Anderson, Puzzles and essays from 'The exchange', 2003:

The cited source seems to be Augustine Birrell, "Carlyle", in Obiter Dicta, 1884:

Imaginary joys and sorrows may extort from him nothing but grunts and snorts; but let him only worry out for himself, from that great dust-heap called 'history,' some undoubted fact of human and tender interest, and, however small it may be, relating possibly to some one hardly known, and playing but a small part in the events he is recording, and he will wax amazingly sentimental, and perhaps shed as many real tears as Sterne or Dickens do sham ones over their figments.

The 1884 date applies to the fourth edition — I haven't been able to determine the original date of publication. But a Google Books search for "ash|trash|dust|rubbish|garbage|scrap|dump|dung heap|bin|can|pile of history" turns up plenty of pre-1917 examples in English — and presumably there are also earlier examples in Russian and other languages:

"The Duel of the Nations", in The eclectic magazine of foreign literature, science, and art, Volume 12, 1870:

The three unpopular ruling houses that had divided the northern half of Germany against Prussia were swept away into the dust-bin of history, and Hanover, Cassel, and Nassau made part of the enlarged kingdom of Hohenzollern.

Edward Everett Hale, "My Time and What I've Done with It", in Old and new, Volume 8, 1873:

It is thus that ignorant prejudices are fostered ; and how few of us in afterlife have the time or the will to sift the rubbish of the dust-bin of history on the chance of discovering the diamond of truth.

A.R. Cooper, The cultivation of art, and its relations to religious Puritanism and money-getting, 1874:

Whatever else we forget and grow weary of in human annals, whatever else becomes obsolete, and, like "Priam's refuse sons," goes to swell the rubbish heap of history, men's achievements in art are not of this kind.

James C. Welling, "The rise and fall of authority", in The North American Review, 1884:

It is because the old scholasticism with its strife of words had finally sharpened the minds of men into a perception of its own unprofitableness, that that system of verbal philosophy, which did good service in its day by clarifying the doctrine of concepts and purifying the language of science, was forever relegated to the dust-bin of history at the Revival of Learning.

And for lagniappe, here's Oscar Wilde's review of "A New Calendar", Pall Mall Gazette 2/17/1887:

MOST modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event. Their compilers display a degraded passion for chronicling small beer, and rake out the dust-heap of history in an ardent search after rubbish. Mr. Walter Scott, however, has made a new departure and has published a calendar in which every day of the year is made beautiful for us by means of an elegant extract from the poems of Mr. Alfred Austin.

So it seems that by the 1880s, versions of this phrase were already in fairly common use to express two different metaphors: a place to discard people, institutions, and ideas that are no longer useful; and a place to look for interesting or precious things that have been overlooked or forgotten.

And by the early 1900s, it seems that versions of this phrase were stereotypically associated with the attitude of revolutionaries towards their enemies. Thus Silas Weir Mitchell gives the line to Thomas Jefferson, in reference to the French Revolution (The Red city: a novel of the second administration of President Washington, 1908):

Presently Schmidt said to Jefferson: "There is sad news from France, Mr. Secretary."

"Good news, Citizen; altogether good. What if men die that a people may live? Men die in war. What is the difference? Titles will go, a king be swept on to the dust-heap of history."

I suspect that the phrase may have gained currency in the works of the socialist movements of the late 19th century, though I haven't seen other evidence of this. But there's no question that after 1917, there was a strong association with left-wing attitudes towards the fate of anciens régimes.

Jefferson gets the role again in Mary P. Hamlin and George Arliss, Hamilton: a play in four acts, 1918:

Tallyrand: You call that dirty rag a symbol of Liberty? I call it a symbol of license, of lawlessness, of murder. What say you, Thomas Jefferson, to the murder of my king, Louis of France? Is that, too, a smbol of Liberty, of Fraternity?

Jefferson: It is the will of the pople. The time is not far distant, Citizen Tallyrand, when every king in Europe will have been swept into the dust heap of history.

And through the next decades, this phrase's association with revolutionary outcomes maintains its strength:

On March 15, 1917, the blood-soaked regime of the Czar of All the Russians was swept into the dust bin of history. ["Who and what are the Bolsheviki?", quoted in Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on charges made against Department of justice by Louis F. Post and others, 1920]

On a sultry July day, as in summer generally, the Tverskayas and Sadovayas in Moscow 1 were dug over with trenches for drainage and pavements, throwing into the dust-heap of history old gates and churches. [Boris Pilniak, The Volga falls to the Caspian Sea, 1931.]

Hell has resolved itself into 'the dust-heap of history.' Purgatory is that limbo in which mortals must remain until they have, proven themselves worthy of admission to that most celestial band known as 'the party. [Hamilton Basso, Wine of the Country, 1941.]

In October of 1917, both the ruling classes and their eulogists were thrown on the dust-heap of history. [The Modern Quarterly, 1947.]

The giant landowners, domestic and foreign, and the emirs, pashas, chieftains, and princes have to be laid in the dust heap of history, where they belong. [Kumar Goshal, People in Colonies, 1948.]

The Soviet Union stands strong and invincible; the democratic movement is growing throughout the world; whereas the Versailles "peacemakers" and the Munchen "pacifiers" are buried in the dust-heap of history [VOKS bulletin, 1949.]

… nationalist riffraff who are on the dump heap of history, were accompanied by malicious anti-Soviet propaganda, slandering of Soviet Ukraine and Ukrainian historiography, and hypocritical scribbling in pseudo-scientific journals, [Digest of the Soviet Ukrainian press, 1960.]

Our successes confirm again and again the utter bankruptcy of the skeptics and whiners, whom life has cast on the dump heap of history. [Current Soviet policies, 1962.]

It is clear to everyone that these excuses for ideas, picked up on the dump heap of history, are incapable of withstanding the all-conquering force of Marxism-Leninism. [The Current Digest of the Soviet Union, 1963.]

While retaining the association with revolutionary outcomes, the phrase began to switch from left to right with a bold choice by Ronald Reagan (or one of his speechwriter)s in his 1982 address to the British Parliament. As Wikipedia explains

Reagan's speechwriter chose the expression deliberately because of its prior context. His exact phrase was: "… freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history."

My impression is that in recent years, the metaphor has become equally distributed across the political spectrum, as "conservatives" have become increasingly interested in promoting radical change.


  1. Ian Preston said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    Here's the dunghill of history from 1837.

    Much as we could rake up from the dunghill of history to the dishonour of the clergy in that age, they were the main lights of the world. Ward's Miscellany, 1837

  2. jfruh said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    A more immediate question: Is "dump heap" a thing anyone actually says? I've certainly never heard it. Is it a southernism? Or is it someone misremembering "ash heap"? In my experience ash heap is by far the more common version of the phrase, but it's probably losing its metaphorical power because people don't warm their homes with fireplaces much anymore and thus don't actually use ash heaps.

  3. Ian Preston said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    That link should be:"dunghill+of+history"

  4. Rube said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    @jfruh You had much the same reaction as me. I originally thought this would be about "dump heap" as an eggcorn of "dung heap". (Just as people don't usually have ash heaps any more, they tend not to have a heap of dung anywhere close by.)

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:26 am


    "dump heap" looks to me like some sort of accidental reduplication, dump and [trash] heap being essentially the same thing. I can't speak to the origin, though.

  6. Ross Presser said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    Wikipedia updated :-)

  7. Ø said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    My first thought was: There's no such thing as a dump heap; maybe they meant scrap heap.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    There's also the bit bucket for lost data, though the "bit bucket of history" rings up only 2 hits on Google Books.

  9. Josh Millard said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    Like Ø, my immediate reaction was to think of "scrap heap", which turns up a good chunk of citations as well.

  10. G said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    I probably won't be counting citations, but this seems like a much clearer phrase in the Slavic languages, where it seems the Russian "мусорник" or the Ukrainian "смітник" are more commonly used than the various "ash heap" or "dustbin" or "scrap heap" constructions of English.

  11. StMartyne said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    I've heard the Russian "мусорник истории", "помойка истории", "свалка истории". All of them used quite frequently. If I were to give preference to one of them I would say "свалка".

  12. languagehat said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    I was copyeditor for the fifth (and, alas, final) edition of Safire's Political Dictionary, and in the course of my pleasurable labors on the text I supplied him with various material that he wound up using; to quote the "dustbin of history" entry:

    Leon Trotsky popularized the term when he shouted after the Mensheviks departing from the 1917 Second Congress of Soviets in protest at the Bolshevik seizure of power, "Go to the place where you belong from now on—the dustbin of history!" This expression, with the Russian for “dustbin” given as musornyi yashchik, appeared in the English translation of Trotsky's autobiography; an eyewitness, Nikolai Sukhanov, quoted Trotsky's phrase as v sornuyu korzinu istorii, but the meaning is the same.

    It's clearly a case where a phrase was used off and on for years before one particular usage became canonical; another such is "iron curtain," which I believe has been discussed here before.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    Did some similar usage independently exist in pre-Bolshevik Russian, or was it calqued in directly or indirectly from English?

  14. G said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    With all the Bolshevik references, I found this photo occurring in the first page of gsearch for "мусорник истории" to be particularly amusing.

  15. languagehat said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

    Especially since it includes the Ukrainian equivalent of the phrase, "На смітник історії."

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    Surely the English-language version of what Trotsky said depends on the translator. I can see that the meaning can be attributed to him, but not the exact phrase.

  17. The Ridger said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    But surely "the great dust-heap called 'history'" is a very different thing.

  18. Peter said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    I agree with The Ridger. The "dump heap of history" to me implies the "dump heap [section] of history". That is, history has several sections, and the dump heap is the forgotten section.

    The "dust-heap called 'history'" implies that all of history is a dust-heap. It doesn't have to mean that history is a place to dump things, rather that history is a "place" that happens to gather dust, thus a dust-heap.

    Dump heap seems to have a more negative connotation for me than dust heap.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

    @Peter: The "dust-heap called 'history'" implies that all of history is a dust-heap. It doesn't have to mean that history is a place to dump things, rather that history is a "place" that happens to gather dust, thus a dust-heap

    It could well have acquired that meaning as "dust" in the originally sense became archaic (except in the UK terms such as "dustman" and "dustbin"). In the mid-1800s, a dust heap was where dust (mostly household cinders and ashes) was dumped, along with a variety of other garbage: see Harper's Magazine, Ugliness Redeemed – the Tale of a London Dust-Heap.

  20. Dakota said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    Perhaps the translation depends on the audience; "dustbin" for speakers of BrE. Apparently trash (rubbish?) is treated differently depending on which side of the pond you are on.

    @G your photo is blocked in KSA, as are so many things.

  21. bloix said,

    December 24, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    An ash heap is a pile of ashes shoveled out of coal stoves and furnaces, quite a common sight before the age of oil. The metaphor of history as a consuming fire is more powerful than the vaguer dust bin. But given Ian Preston's citation, it does look like ash heap, dust bin and the rest are simple euphemisms for excrement.

  22. languagehat said,

    December 24, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    Surely the English-language version of what Trotsky said depends on the translator. I can see that the meaning can be attributed to him, but not the exact phrase.

    Yes, but the interesting thing is that it's not even clear what he said in Russian — the two accounts quoted above use different phrases. At any rate, the idea is now associated with him, whatever the exact wording.

  23. briggslaw said,

    December 24, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    Those of us who live in rural America, like me, know very well what a 'dump heap' is. The metaphor grabbed me immediately. Our town dump is open only on Saturdays in the winter, and I drove over there this morning with our trash.

  24. Graeme said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    It's simply the 'dump' in Australia. Given how garbage is now sequestered into pre-dug holes, the 'heap' seems doubly redundant.

    But all the synonyms are instantly recognizable. What threw me was 'frosh'. What or who on earth are they? Sloshed freshers!?

  25. Paleodoc said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

    Graeme, the term "frosh" is used in the U.S.A. as an abbreviation for "freshmen," entry-level undergraduates in a university (and also 9th-graders in the U.S. system of elementary and secondary education, which begins with kindergarten and continues with grades 1 through 12). By analogy, new members of the U.S. Congress are called freshmen. I can't explain the vowel shift and can only speculate that it was meant to avoid confusion with well-established meanings of "fresh."

  26. Buzzwords and the dustbin of history: telling good from bad said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    […] associated with Leon Trotsky (translated variously). Mark Liberman of U Penn. traces its British origins back to 1870.* I choose this term to describe the fate of most buzzwords because it is an example of a turn of […]

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