“Dumpster Fire” Is 2016’s Meme of the Year

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A friend emails:

I’m curious. The term “dumpster fire” has been thrown around a lot throughout this campaign, particularly as an unflattering description of the Trump campaign. Before this year, I have never heard this phrase used about anything or anybody. Am I just getting old and un-cool? Has the term been out there for awhile and I just haven’t noticed? Or, maybe it’s just a regional thing and dumpster fires are just not as common in Deputy Dawg-land as they are in, say, New York City.

Please help me out here. Where did this term come from?

I have good news: my friend is undoubtedly getting old and uncool, but that’s not why he’s confused. It really is a fairly new term of derision. Claire Fallon wrote an immensely long investigation of this topic a few months ago at the Huffington Post. There are two takeaways:

First, the word dumpster was originally trademarked by its inventor, a guy named George Dempster. Who knew? But it’s now a generic noun.

Second, aside from its use in local news reports to describe actual dumpsters actually catching fire—a surprisingly frequent occurrence—Fallon figures that its origins as a put-down come from the sports world:

Linguist Mark Liberman, who works at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a recent blog post, “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.”…Another source, Mike Wise’s colleague Liz Drabick, agrees. When I spoke to Drabick on the phone, she remembered, “It definitely became a sports talk radio catchall phrase, I want to say around 2010, 2011.”…“I’m almost loathe to admit this,” she said, “because it’s not the same personality that I enjoy now, but it was definitely the Herd. It was Colin Cowherd.”

….Some more clues point to Cowherd as the popularizer, if not the coiner: a 2008 blog post by Joel Anderson, now a Buzzfeed reporter, opined, “to borrow a phrase from Colin Cowherd, McCain is turning into a dumpster fire right before our eyes.” In September 2008, an SBNation Syracuse blog quoted him slamming the college town like so: “That place is a dumpster-fire. It should be noted, one of the least-attractive college campus in the country [sic].”

It turns out there are a few earlier uses of dumpster fire, but they’re scattered and never had any influence. It was, apparently, Colin Cowherd, circa 2008-11, who turned it into a phrase du jour. Then, earlier this year, the now-iconic GIF of a dumpster fire became an internet meme, and that was that. It fit the Trump campaign so perfectly that it made the leap into the mainstream.

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