Trashing American English


Old metal drumsHow long ago is it since you went to the dump — or, as Victorians call it, the tip?

My memory of dumps past is of a large, lumpy area swarming with crows, vagrant seagulls, lean scavenging cats and the odd furtive rat, and littered with every kind of cast off — disintegrating furniture, stained and gutted mattresses, whitegoods spewing their innards, black garbags bursting with unmentionable putrid stuff and acres of rusting galvo, old cans, and paper idly rising and falling in the redolent breeze.

From this random mountain range of human detritus rose a smell combining the acridity of smoke with the sweetish unbreathable stench of rot and decay. And around the whole expanse, as if it were a park or nature reserve, stretched a cyclone wire fence to which the prevailing winds had plastered an unlovely, peeling skin of newspapers, food wrappers and grotty plastic bags.

Well, that was about ten years ago. Being forced over recent weeks to make a number of 'dump runs', I was stunned by the sight that greeted me on my first visit to the local — not dump anymore — but transfer station. A curving, nicely cambered roadway led me to the administrative centre, where I was greeted by Steve, clipboard in one hand, biro in the other and a cigarette waiting behind one ear for, no doubt, a lull in business.

Steve, an amiable bloke in a sunhat pulled down low over his very dark glasses, took a practised glance over my ute load of stuff, assessed how much 'air' was in it — which meant was it piled higher than it needed to be and therefore more costly — then relieved me of $21 and waved an arm at the rows of colour-coded dump bins.

'Cardboard and paper in that white one, general garbage in the red one, glass in the brown one, bottles over there in the crate and then take your metal and wood across to the other side.'

Steve ambled across as my mate Rick and I began to unload. We were patronising the cardboard and paper bin because I had a lot of books which, having spent five or six years in sealed boxes, were bent, chewed or in other ways seriously degraded and could neither be read nor sold. 

'I'm not a reader meself,' Steve remarked. 'Should be, of course; too bloody lazy I s'pose.' He waved vaguely at his small office hut. 'Now,' he said, 'had a bloke here the other day, a Yank. Said he was after a couple of barrels. "You mean drums," I says to him. But no. He didn't want to play the bloody drums, he wanted barrels. Well, I says, the only barrels round here are wine barrels. What you want is drums.'

By now we'd stopped unloading and were listening intently. 'Well, I've got an old dictionary in me truck so I went over to take a look and prove the point to this bloke. And d'you know,' Steve said, 'I couldn't find the definition of a drum in the bloody dictionary. Musical instruments, yes, percussion gizmos yes, but drums for oil or petrol, or the like — not a bloody word.'

We agreed with him, as we resumed chucking out our load, that there were drums you played and there were brake drums and you could 'give someone the drum' and there were drums for oil and other similar contents.

But he'd stopped listening because, as our load tumbled into the white lidded bin for cardboard and paper, he'd found a large thick, though grievously contorted Macmillan dictionary. He thumbed through it as we worked on and shouted in triumph.

'Here you go,' he said, '"Drum: a large round container for liquids such as fuel and chemicals: example — an oil drum." I hope that bloody Yank comes back and I'll throw this one at him. Percussion bloody instruments, my arse. Is that glass and metal you've got in the bottom there? That goes round the other side.'

He wandered off, clutching the dictionary while we rolled over to the glass and metal areas, following the impeccable road signs around the pristine roadways.

'This is the cleanest dump I've ever seen,' I said.

'They're all like this now,' Rick said. 'Department of the Environment rides shotgun on them, and the days of the great festering stinking pile on the edge of town are gone. Mind you,' he added, 'the dump masters aren't usually quite as erudite.'

On our second trip that afternoon, Steve smilingly relieved us of another $20 then picked a ragged copy of Macbeth from the heap of abused books. 'Strange bastards in those days, weren't they?' he said. 'Wantin' to be Kings and Queens and whatnot. Scottish, of course. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

'By the way, I found another dictionary after you'd left this morning and it had 'drum' in it too. Drum as a container I mean. F****n' Yanks destroyin' the language. I see you've got some bottles there. Make sure they go in that wire cage over near the shed. Can't be confusin' the bins — just makes more bloody work for me. Might interrupt me readin',' he added and the black glasses flashed with inscrutable irony. 


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, English language



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Existing comments

Thanks Brian for this thoroughly entertaining piece. Definitely a good read!

Ian Fraser | 30 September 2011  

Delightful, Brian. A great way to start the day. Thank you.

ErikH | 30 September 2011  

Sadly it's not just the Yanks.

What about the Clown Prince of Qld, Senator Barnie Rubble?

My kids are fed up with me echoing the Senator's most irritating mangled phrase 'irregardless'.

We could pass on the IQ test for our political reps, and forgive the factional circus that provides us with talentless leaders but should we have to be assaulted by speech manglers all the time, particularly when they all seem to come from Qld?

Harry Wilson | 30 September 2011  

ES, why couldn't you have asked Brian Matthews to write the other article this morning?

In New York recently, I had the tv sound down and the subtitles on. George Bush was talking about affairs to do with the inside of the atom. The word on the screen was "nucular"

Frank | 30 September 2011  

Here they call it the landfill. That's not in my dictionary.

Gavan | 03 October 2011  

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