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Mind your language

Whatever happened to dustcarts?

Bin lorries and garbage trucks have routed the old southern English term

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

Are we seeing the end of dustcarts? I don’t mean that those noisy, noisome vehicles will cease roaring at the dawn and blocking traffic in the afternoon rush-hour. But the name of the thing is now often given as bin lorry, or, in full American mode garbage truck. ‘Climb in the cab of the garbage truck and get to work!’ urge the Danish makers of the Lego City Garbage Truck (£12). ‘Drive around Lego City looking for trash.’

Calling the dustman a binman used to be a northern trait, as Paul Johnson, long of this parish, observed while making different complaint in Enemies of Society (1977): ‘Dustmen (or binmen in the North of England) become refuse-collectors.’ The most famous dustcart of recent years was one in Glasgow that in 2014 killed six people and injured 16 three days before Christmas. It was widely called a bin lorry even by London-based journalists.


The problem is not that we no longer put dust in dustbins or have dustmen heaving dustbins into dustcarts. People still speak of sailing from a port even though the ferry has no sails. And dust was hardly the staple fodder of dustcarts even in the days of Alfred Doolittle (1913). Dickens’s Golden Dustman , Nicodemus Boffin, in Our Mutual Friend is said to owe something to Henry Dodd (1801–1881), categorised in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry written in the past 20 years as ‘refuse collector and philanthropist’ — so it seems that Paul Johnson was right.

Refuse makes an appearance in the American Standard Version of the Bible in St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: ‘ I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ.’ In other versions the word is rubbish, and in the Authorised Version of 1611, dung. In the muscular days of Wycliffe, the word used is turds.

With the Labour party’s present travails, the disappearance of dustcarts and dustbins leaves a celebrated translation of Trotsky in limbo. ‘Go where you belong from now on,’ he told the Mensheviks, ‘into the dustbin of history.’ Whoever the Mensheviks are in the Labour crisis, they can hardly be told to go where they belong — into the wheelie-bin of history.

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