A Phrase for Our Time: Merriam-Webster Adds ‘Dumpster Fire’ to Dictionary

by Laurel Wamsley

March 5, 2018

What qualifies as a dumpster fire depends on who’s watching, but you tend to know it when you see it.

But if forced to define it for someone not prone to hashtagging, you might quote Merriam-Webster:

Dumpster fire (noun, US informal): “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence: disaster.”

The gleefully catastrophic phrase is one of 850 new additions the online dictionary announced today.

Dumpster fire‘s inclusion marks a crowning moment for the treasured declaration and its oft-tweeted GIF. It’s the metaphor we wouldn’t want to live without — though the dictionary says the phrase’s first-known usage was just ten years ago.

“If a word is frequently used enough by some people, it has to be placed into a reference for all people,” Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski tells NPR. He says the word has turned up often enough in print — and on social media — to merit its inclusion.

Though Merriam-Webster sadly didn’t release the full list of new words, the additions announced today are like a Lexicographer’s Guide to 2018 — in all its self-conscious, millennial-obsessed glory.


Image via Getty/Tim Boyle


There’s embiggen, mansplain, and hate-watch. Glamping, self-care, and welp. And just in case you feel compelled to render a diagnosis: here’s a definition for narcissistic personality disorder.

Jargon gets its day, too. See bandwidth‘s third meaning: “the emotional or mental capacity necessary to do or consider something.”

Despite the novelty of these terms, Sokolowski says Merriam-Webster isn’t trying to emulate Urban Dictionary — which has had a definition for dumpster fire since 2008.

Informal and vulgar language changes more quickly than standard English, Sokolowski says, and Urban Dictionary is valuable because it records changes in informal language in real time.

“But we, as a dictionary, are not looking in real time. We are kind of a lag indicator, in financial terms,” he explains. “We are really interested in the terms that are here to stay, that we are very unlikely to ever take away from the dictionary.”

Dumpster fire is always going to be in the dictionary?

Though he cautions that lexicographers make terrible prognosticators, Sokolowski thinks the term will last.

The phrase had narrow usage on Reddit, he says, before blossoming into a go-to meme on Facebook and Twitter for a wide array of disasters – be they cultural, political or sporting.

“Its breadth is so great today, I am relatively sure it’s here to stay,” he says. “It’s been used so broadly, in the last two to three years especially, that people in the future will have to know what it meant.”

  Source: The Two-Way: NPR



Further reading:


The Dictionary Just Got a Whole Lot Bigger

The language doesn’t take a vacation, and neither does the dictionary. The words we use are constantly changing in big ways and small, and we’re here to record those changes. Each word has taken its own path in its own time to become part of our language-to be used frequently enough by some in order to be placed in a reference for all.

Other stories you may like