“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.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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ONE MORE QUICK THING:

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As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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