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​Trash and trains: thoughts on metaphor

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Recently my social network feeds were filled with posts about the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). One metaphor in particular struck me, partly because so many people were using the same language: “a dumpster fire”. That got me thinking about metaphors for “a disaster”. I’d heard “dumpster fire” before, but it seems to me that it’s a recent addition to the vernacular; I’m not sure I’d heard it prior to entering the 21st century. A common phrase used in the past when something happened that was chaotic, bad, and a total mess, has been “a train wreck”. I don’t hear “train wreck” much any more. I’m not sure if it’s because trains are less in the public consciousness than in the previous century, or if it’s because much more colorful phrases, rich in connotations, have supplanted it. Like “dumpster fire”.

I found myself pondering the impact and implications of “dumpster fire” versus “train wreck” in describing something that is an unmitigated disaster (in the view of the speaker). Surely a train wreck is much worse than a dumpster fire, but the use of these phrases doesn’t seem to take into account the real actual weight of the comparative events, dumpster fires and train wrecks. One would think that since the issue of health care is one that affects life and death matters for at least some people, that “train wreck” might be a more apt pejorative phrase since actual train wrecks are a matter of life and death to the people involved. Perhaps “train wreck” has become weakened in meaning due to overuse in the previous century and become a cliche, or perhaps people have decided that train wrecks are too heinous to be bandied about in casual usage, or perhaps trains just seem too archaic to have much impact to modern ears.

But what’s the linguistic allure of “dumpster fire”? Based on amount of usage I’ve seen lately, people like it. It’s an effective rhetorical device. Here’s why I think this phrase has a nice solid impact as a metaphor. Rarely have I ever been in proximity with a dumpster that doesn’t reek. Although some dumpsters have a lot of waste paper, dumpsters are —  in most people minds — associated with rotting organic matter like food and the accompanying bad smells. Dumpsters are unsavory; they are located behind buildings and in dark alleyways. They conjure up in the image in people’s mind of poorly lit areas, foul odors, a mixed lot of refuse, and unsanitary conditions. Some things just have worse connotations than others. “Train” doesn’t have an inherently bad connotation. “Dumpster” has unpleasant connotations. So, dumpster is a good word if you want to convey something is bad. “Dumpster fire”, however, takes it to a whole new level. Now you have something nasty and foul smelling that’s a conflagration, so “fire” acts as an intensifier to “dumpster”. Together, however, they bring to the metaphor a deeper level of meaning. 

As it happens, I’ve seen two dumpster fires in two very different circumstances. There are basically two causes of dumpster fires: stupidity and malice. The first dumpster fire I saw was next to the apartment where I lived at the time. The apartment manager told me disgustedly that someone had stupidly dumped the still hot coals and ash from their hibachi into the dumpster. At the time little hibachis were popular for patio or balcony cookouts in the apartment complex; so it could’ve been any one of my neighbors. (One thing I didn’t like about apartment living was that your home was only as safe as your stupidest neighbor; several families in the building next to ours lost their homes in a separate fiery incident of stupidity.) The other dumpster fire I saw was behind a building that was closed for a couple of days. They didn’t make food or sell anything flammable; the dumpster was probably full of paper or cardboard. The important point is that the building it was behind was not open for business, so there were no employees that could’ve accidentally caused it. In other words: the fire probably was deliberately and maliciously set. With fire, context is everything. Candles: good. Fireplace: good. Wildfire in the field behind your house: bad. Dumpsters: bad. 

Metaphorically, a dumpster fire is a very nearly perfect phrase to use to condemn something that’s an unmitigated disaster, particularly for a needless heedless act or event in which you want to convey connotations of: rubbish, foulness, stinkiness, shadiness, stupidity, or malice. I don’t know who coined the phrase “dumpster fire”, or how long it’s been in the vernacular, but I suspect the richness of connotations will keep it in use for a long time. 

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