Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Trash Talk

Fiery references top trendy terms in 2016


EACH DECEMBER, the American Dialect Society (ADS) votes on a word or phrase that infiltrated the English language in a big way that year. For 2016, the 128-year-old organization, which makes a point of stating it doesn’t take the vote too seriously, chose “dumpster fire.”

The term—often expressed by combining the trashcan and fire emojis in text messages and on social media—is defined as “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation,” according to the ADS. The organization said the phrase emerged mostly in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, but it was also used to describe the year as a whole, which provided a seemingly endless string of bad news, including celebrity deaths, mass shootings, catastrophic fires, and more.

“As 2016 unfolded, many people latched on to ‘dumpster fire’ as a colorful, evocative expression to verbalize their feelings that the year was shaping up to be a catastrophic one,” Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, said in a release. “In pessimistic times, ‘dumpster fire’ served as a darkly humorous summation of how many viewed the year’s events.”

Although “dumpster fire” only recently climbed to the peak of the English vernacular, its use can be traced back several years, especially in sports. A 2009 column in The Washington Post used the term to describe the Washington Redskins’ loss to the previously winless Detroit Lions. When searching for the term on Twitter, a popular result is a video parodying Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” titled “The [Cleveland] Browns are a Dumpster Fire.”

More recently, the term’s use has taken a political turn. In the months leading up to the November election, President Donald Trump’s campaign was frequently referred to as a “dumpster fire” by left-leaning publications. One such publication even went as far to say Trump’s campaign had surpassed the classification of a “dumpster fire” to become a “landfill inferno.” Google Trends, which measures the public’s interest in topics over time by analyzing Google search history, shows a dramatic spike in the term’s popularity from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016.

Other fiery terms earned nods by the ADS in more specific categories, including “fire,” which ranked among the top four Slang Words of the Year. The term is slang for cool, fun, or stylish, according to the ADS. On Twitter, users frequently use “fire” as an adjective to describe new music and viral videos. “Bruno Mars’ new album is fire man,” one user wrote in January, ending the Tweet with a fire emoji.

The fire emoji alone, used as a way of saying something is exciting or energetic, topped the list of the most popular emojis in 2016.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: ThinkStock