The Grammarphobia Blog

Trash talk

Q: I recently used the word “dumpster” in a letter published in a local newspaper. The editor changed it to “Dumpster,” saying it was a trademark, like “Kleenex,” and had to be capitalized. I’d like your opinion: Big D or little d?

A: Let’s begin with the New York Times stylebook, which capitalizes “Dumpster” and describes it as “a trademark for a trash hauling bin.”

Elsewhere in the stylebook, the Times says trademarks “are uppercased as a caution to readers who might adopt a name owned by someone else.”

The Associated Press stylebook agrees that “Dumpster” should be capitalized, but it recommends using a generic term like “trash bin” or “trash container” instead.

The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—also capitalize “Dumpster.”

But American Heritage’s example of the word’s usage (from the Chicago Tribune) describes a street “lined with low-cost apartment buildings and strewn with blue dumpsters.” (As the dictionary notes, “This trademark often occurs in print in lowercase.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “dumpster” lowercases the word, though most of the quotations cited by the OED capitalize it.

A trademark, as you know, is a distinctive name used by a business to identify its products or services. But when the public begins using this name for all similar products and services, the trademark loses its distinctiveness.

In the case of trash hauling bins, the word “Dumpster” comes from the Dempster-Dumpster system for mechanically loading trash containers onto garbage trucks.

Dempster Brothers, which patented the system in 1937, has several trademarks for “Dumpster,” but the word is often used these days as a generic term for a trash container used in any similar system.

We won’t get into the legal situation that arises when a trademark becomes generic. We’ll leave that to trademark lawyers.

The main concern for a writer is to communicate, not to help a business protect a trademark, especially not a trademark that’s widely used as a generic term.

So what would we do? We’d lowercase “dumpster” if we were referring generically to a container used in a mechanically loading trash system.

The alternatives recommended by AP (“trash bin” and “trash container”) are too vague. And the Times definition (“trash hauling bin”) is too clunky.

Anyway, the term “dumpster” is so widely used now that any effort to preserve its distinctiveness would probably be a lost cause, like trying to revive such old trademarks as “aspirin,” “butterscotch,” “thermos,” and “zipper.”

We can’t end this posting without mentioning the noun phrase “dumpster diving,” which the OED defines as the “practice of searching through a rubbish container (esp. a dumpster or skip) for food, items of value, etc.”

The first citation in the OED is from a 1983 caption in Life Magazine: “Rat and Mike call rummaging for food in trash bins behind restaurants dumpster diving.”

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