Transatlantic words and actionsJun 24th, 2008 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Personal Columns
“Is ‘trash’ an American word?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
Lines from Chapter 6 of Persuasion by Jane Austen were read aloud,
I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.
“Ah”, I said, “It was hardly an American import, then. The United States was a very young country in those days”.
Then Iago’s words from Othello came to mind, “Who steals my purse steals trash.” Having a battered wallet that is frequently empty except for used railway tickets and crumpled business cards, Iago’s regard of his purse as trash always had an attractiveness about it.
Trash has been around for a long time. A search for it amongst words coined by Shakespeare didn’t suggest he had made it up, but amongst the words he did coin there appears the word ‘zany’ – something else that has an American feel about it, but like trash has crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic
(In the years living in the North, there were many words that seemed local dialect and sentences that had a peculiar construction. Closer examination showed them to be not local adaptations, but the persistence of Elizabethan English into the late 20th Century).
The words from Ecclesiastes in the Bible that there is “nothing new under the sun” find a resonance in looking at language, but they also find resonance in politics.
The United States is not the first country to invade Afghanistan and Iraq; it is not the first country to use sanctions in defence of business interests; it is not the first to allow a country to be run for the profit of big business. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1878 and Iraq in 1919; the British employed gunboat diplomacy frequently from the time of the Don Pacifico affair in 1850 onwards; the British allowed the East India Company to rule India until 1858.
It is not just trash and zaniness that have travelled west before returning east.