What is our understanding of the word “rubbish”

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Image credit: pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain

The example used here as a demonstration of how much is “lost in translation” is rather unorthodox and hopefully unexpected: the word “rubbish”.

What is rubbish?

We rarely think about the dedicated meaning to the words we use. How were they chosen to describe a certain fact or feeling or action? Who chose them?

It is Nietzsche who argues in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” that words don’t have what it takes to fully describe all that an experience is.

Moreover every object, thought, experience, act, feeling is unique in it’s own way and that uniqueness is what makes those so vital to the human race. But by enclosing them in words, connected synthetically through even more restricting grammar rules we lose exactly what was initially most important.

Etymology of “rubbish” /ˈrʌbɪʃ/

The Origin of the word “rubbish” can be traced to the Late Middle English language, a derivation of the Anglo-Norman French “rubbous”. Initially used in the 1950s by Australians and New-Zealanders by adding the English suffix “ish” to the old French word “robe”, that means “spoils”. The slang meaning of the words “rubbished” and “rubbishing” was “disparage, criticize harshly”. Interestingly the use of the word over time has dropped significantly, but since 2010 a big increase has been observed.

The contemporary meaning of “rubbish”

According to the Oxford dictionary in the modern English language (especially British English) the word “rubbish” has gained the meaning of:

Noun :

  • Waste material; refuse or litter – what we usually collect during a rubbish removal in London;
  • Material that is considered unimportant or valueless;
  • Absurd, nonsensical, or worthless talk or ideas;

Verb – as a verb “rubbish” has the informal meaning of:

  • Criticise severely and reject as worthless;


  • Very bad, worthless or useless;

Synonyms of “rubbish”

What is the first word that comes in mind when we hear “rubbish”? Perhaps waste, junk, garbage?

The Oxford dictionary also gives those synonyms suggestions:

For the “waste material; refuse or litter” meaning of the noun “rubbish”:

  • refuse, waste, garbage, litter, discarded matter, debris, detritus, scrap, dross;
    flotsam and jetsam, lumber; sweepings, leavings, leftovers, scraps, dregs, offscourings, odds and ends; muck;
  • In North American English the most popular synonym is “trash”;
  • In Australian/New Zealand –  “mullock”;
  • Some informal words used for “rubbish” are “dreck, junk”;
  • In British English informal words for “rubbish” are “grot, gash”;
  • In archeology the term for “rubbish” is “debitage”;
  • Rarely used are “draff, raffle, raff, cultch, orts”.

So far nothing out of the ordinary, right?

For the “absurd, nonsensical, or worthless talk or ideas” meaning of the noun “rubbish”:

  • nonsense, balderdash, gibberish, claptrap, blarney, blather, blether, moonshine;
    Informally “rubbish” is used as “hogwash, baloney, tripe, drivel, bilge, bosh, bull, bunk, rot, hot air, eyewash, piffle,poppycock, phooey, hooey, malarkey, twaddle, guff, dribble, gobbledegook”;
  • In British English the informal use of “rubbish” sounds like “codswallop, cock, cobblers, stuff and nonsense, tosh, taradiddle, cack”;
  • Scottish & Northern English informal – “havers”;
  • Irish informal – “codology”;
  • The North Americans informally use the words “garbage, flapdoodle, blathers, wack, bushwa, applesauce” for “rubbish”;
  • More rare uses are: “bunkum, tommyrot, cod, gammon, toffee”;
  • As a vulgar slang: “shit, crap, bullshit, balls”;
  • North American vulgar slang – “crapola”;
  • Australian/New Zealand vulgar slang – “bulldust”.

How to Say Rubbish in Different languages?

In most foreign languages “rubbish” has a radically different sound, but the same meanings. For example in Czech is “odpadky” or in French “ordures” or in Portuguese “lixo”, not to mention the Asian languages…

Antonyms of “rubbish”

Now, when you know how to say someone is “rubbish” in  Latin. Let’s check the word’s antonyms, some of which you may never have thought about.

  • benign adj., benignant adj., cream, detail n., sense n., comprehension n., concept n., conception n., conducive adj., congenial adj., consideration n., construction n., constructive adj., contributory adj., contrive, convenient adj., diet, economise, effective adj., effectual adj., efficient adj., entry n., enumeration n., experience n., exploit, exposure n., favourable adj., feasiblef adj., future, feeling, fruitful, functional, good, handy, etc.

Our most favourite is “economise” – a word both so far and so close to “rubbish”. Obviously as much rubbish as you create, less you economise. But not having read that article would you think to link the two words as antonyms?

Here is enumerated only a small part of the hundreds of meanings of the word “rubbish”. Can a single word really display all those meanings in their complicity? I think by the examples above we have proved that Nietzsche’s hypothesis is not far-fetched at all and words don’t have what it takes to fully describe all that an experience is.