On the long list of insults — dirtbag, scumbag, douchebag, idiot, poor man’s Justin Bieber — the one used most often in recent history has been “garbage person.” Showing up on good TV, in endless tweets, in popular writing, and in popular culture, “garbage person” has long held a position as the preferred internet-era insult of choice. Why? Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch attempts to explain to Atlas Obscura, in a story about getting to the bottom of the term.
She says, “Swear words are very versatile. You can do all sorts of things with them.” And the thrill of placing “garbage” or other nouns “in this privileged syntactic position” (as a “prenominal modifier” before another noun) makes the term feel much more like a risky swear word. But the actual origin of “garbage person” is unfortunately a little less fun. From Atlas Obscura:
Indeed, the legacy of the garbage person, though storied, seems to stretch back slightly less far. One of the earliest mentions on record is from the testimony of Charles Manson, who used the term to describe himself: “As we have tin cans and garbage alongside the road, and oil slicks in your water, so you have people, and I am one of your garbage people,” he said during the 1970 trial that landed him in prison for life. In the 1996 Reese Witherspoon vehicle Freeway, serial killer Bob Wolverton reverses the referent, telling Witherspoon’s character that he murders only “garbage people.”
Now’s our chance to put “garbage person” — the term and the people it describes — out to pasture. What’s up next? Jagoff? Dingleberry? Hater-loser? We turn to true garbage person Donald Trump for inspiration.