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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) trash, worthless refuse material; (v.) to criticize severely; to dismiss as or prove to be nonsense

For such a throwaway word (no pun inten—actually, no, let’s say that one was intended), from an etymological viewpoint rubbish is actually quite an interesting word.

For starters, that –ish ending isn’t original. Although the word’s precise history is somewhat muddy (though it’s perhaps related in some way to rubble, which would in turn likely put it in the same ballpark as rub), when it first appeared in English around six centuries ago, rubbish was typically spelled something along the lines of rubbous, or robos. Middle English spelling was notoriously fluid, of course, and it wasn’t long before those –ous and –os forms were joined by a raft of other increasingly wayward spellings, including the likes of robyge, robbage, and even robeux. And, alongside all those, around 500 years ago or so we start to see forms like robyshe, robishe, and rubbrysshe come into the mix too.

As bizarre as they may seem, it was this –ysh (and later –ish) ending that won through to the modern day—though quite why, or indeed where it came from, is all a little too murky to say.

Flash forward another few centuries, and you’ll find something else somewhat interesting to say about rubbish:

So whenever you hear of someone’s opinions being rubbished when they’re challenged or refuted, for instance, you’re actually hearing a quaint bit of Aussie slang that’s only around 70 years old. And in a word that’s getting on towards 700 years old in English alone, it’s fair to say that makes this a relatively recent development.

It’s almost too unusual to believe (and as is often the case, we had a fair few comments calling out BS on this one), but nope—it’s true. Even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary can find no earlier evidence of this verbal use of rubbish any earlier than 1953, when the Australian author Tom Hungerford wrote this:

If Verity was going to tramp you for burning the tucker ... he would have rubbished you long before this.
Tom Hungerford, Riverslake (1953)

(In fact, in doing a little word hunting of our own here at HH, we found that using rubbish as a verb was apparently so unusual in nineteenth century English that it was listed as an alien-sounding error in this paper exploring speech defects in aphasic patients. But we digress...)

Before then, if you want any further evidence of rubbish as a verb, you need to jump back to the early 1600s, when the English Anglican cleric and writer Samuel Purchas recorded this line, in a ship captain’s detailed retelling of an exploration of the coast of Virginia in 1602:

The nine and twentieth [of May], we laboured in getting of Sassafrage, rubbishing our little Fort or Islet, new keeling our shallop[*]; and making a Punt or Flat bottome Boate to passe to and fro our Fort ouer the fresh water, the powder of Sassafrage in twelue houres cured one of our Company that had taken a great Surfet by eating the bellies of Dog-fish, a very delicious meate.
Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625)

(*A shallop, should you care to know, being a sloop-like sailboat.) Between those two quotes, though, there’s no further evidence of rubbish being used as a verb, suggesting it really was a quirky mid-twentieth-century reapplication that just happens to have caught on and—unlike a great many other verbed nouns—has come to be somewhat widely accepted.

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