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

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


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.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.