Une poubelle

One of the things we discussed last night in the French conversation group was the origins of the word poubelle (bin / trash can). Fortunately one of us had an French etymological dictionary and we discovered that such receptacles are named after Eugène Poubelle (1831-1907), a lawyer, administrator and diplomat who was préfet of the Seine region of France and introduced the bin to Paris.

It was on 7th March 1884 that Poubelle decreed that owners of buildings must provide those who lived there with three covered containers for household rubbish, which was to be sorted into perishable items, paper and cloth, crockery and shells.

The containers proved popular with Parisians, who named them Boîtes Poubelle after Monsieur Poubelle, although building owners were not so keen as they had to pay for the containers and to have them emptied. Another group who didn’t welcome the Boîtes Poubelle were the chiffoniers (rag-and-bone men), who made their living from collecting rubbish.

As well as meaning bin, poubelle can also be used to refer to old cars in a poor state of repair – old bangers in the UK. Related words include:

  • camion-poubelle – bin lorry
  • jeter à la poubelle – to throw in the rubbish
  • sac poubelle – bin liner

The name Poubelle comes from pou bel (peu beau – just beautiful), from the dialect of Pas-de-Calais in northern France.

In English there are many words for poubelle. In the UK, for example, the small ones used inside are known as waste baskets, waste paper baskets, rubbish bins or bins; and the larger ones used outside are known as dustbins, rubbish bins, wheelie bins (if they have wheels) or bins. The ones in public places are known as litter bins. Names for such receptacles in the USA include trash can and garbage can, and I’m sure there are others.

In the UK rubbish is collected by bin men (the majority of them are men) who drive (dust)bin lorries / rubbish trucks / dust carts, and is taken to (rubbish) tips / dumps / landfills / recycling centres / incinerators. There are also official terms for all these – refuse disposal operatives, and such like. What about in other countries?

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, French, Language, Words and phrases.

15 Responses to Poubelle

  1. Magnus says:

    Fascinating stuff.

    Poubelle must surely be just about my favourite word for bin in any language (not that I know the words for bin in very many languages).

  2. Christopher Miller says:

    Bin men? That’s interesting: I remember the name dustmen from when I was growing up in England in the early 1960s. I was later told by a relative that the new preferred term was sanitation engineers.

  3. In Dutch, the big ones for outside are called KLIKO, after the original brand (itself, according to wiki, a contraction of Klinkenberg en Koster).

  4. Zachary says:

    In Eastern Ontario (Canada) the most popular term is simply “garbage”, so that both the retainer and the litter itself are synonymous. The second most common term would be “trash”. In both cases, you can append the word “can” or “bin” to be more specific; though, I would say ‘garbage can’ is the most common and ‘trash bin’ the least. Related terms: garbage man, garbage truck.

    In French here, “poubelle” is certainly the most common term, but you’ll also hear people referring to garbage cans as “les vidanges”, which afaik carries a slightly different meaning in France. And then there’s the term “ordures”, but it seems more of a quebecism to me, as it’s not really used in my area except in the construction “camion à ordures”. As for garbage men, they’re colloquially referred to as “vidangeurs”, otherwise as “éboueurs”.

  5. Christopher Miller says:

    I think Montreal is basically the same as eastern Ontario, whether in French or English. ‘Ordures’ is more standard French, not normally used as often as ‘vidanges’. As for ‘les vidanges’, it comes to mind for me mostly in expressions like ‘jeter aux/sortir les vidanges’, basically equivalent to ‘throw in/take out the garbage’. I’ve never noticed a garbage can itself referred to as ‘les vidanges’.

  6. Yenlit says:

    In British slang ‘bins’ are glasses as in spectacles which is short for binoculars. I don’t know about the rest of the UK but in Liverpool from cafes and ‘greasy spoon’ takeaways you can buy ‘bin lid’ meals which is basically everything served in a large flat bap (bread roll) – it looks very unhealthy.

  7. Sandra says:

    In French from France, “vidange” is the oil change for your car.
    And one of the terms for bin man is “poubellier”, even though it’s less common than “éboueur”.
    “Faire les poubelles” is what (mostly) homeless people do: scavenging what food and useful items they can from the rubbish bins.

  8. Christopher Miller says:



    ‘Vidange(s)’ in Euro- vs Canadian French reminds me of another mismatch. Whereas ‘dépanneur’ (which basically means something like ‘getter-out-of-a-fix’) is a car mechanic in Euro-French, here in Canada, at least in Quebec and as likely or not neighbouring areas in Ontario and New Brunswick, it’s a small neighbourhood general store that carries a variety of things you might need for the house in a fix. In Montreal English we use the word, often shortened to ‘dep’, instead of ‘corner store’.

    Once in Belgium, the conversation suddenly stopped when I said I had to go to the dépanneur for some milk or something of the sort. After a perplexed pause, one of my conversational partners asked the to her obvious question why I would go to the dépanneur for some milk (or whatever it was)? I gave an explanation of the differences between dépanneurs and ordinary stores with shorter hours and it was then it dawned on her that I wasn’t talking about HER dépanneur: after she got what I was talking about, she explained what the word means over there.

  9. LAttilaD says:

    The Dutch word resembles the Hungarian. The trash bin is called kuka. According to the Historical–Etymological Dictionary of Hungarian Language, what we’ve scanned with my wife, it is a Czech borrowing. In colloquial Czech, kuka was meaning the bin lorry. It came from the German abbreviation KUKA, what stands for Keller und Knappich Augsburg. Such lorries were imported from Czechia, along with the name. In Hungarian, the name went on to the bin, and the lorry received the names kukásautó or kukáskocsi, “car of/for kuka”.

    But my wife invented an absolutely different name. She called the lorry morcipociürítő, a name nobody would understood. One of the dwarfes of Snow White is called Kuka, too. The one who doesn’t talk, since kuka is an older Hungarian word meaning silly, deaf, dumb. Morgó, “grumbler” is another dwarf. Morci is a diminutive of that. Poci is a childish word for belly, ürítő means “emptier”, now glue all of them and you receive an absolutely original word. 🙂

  10. Declan says:

    In Ireland, one puts rubbish in the bin for the bin men (waste collection) to take to the dump (or the Central Waste Management Facility :P). We segregate or separate our waste or rubbish.

    My favourite word for bin is in Irish, where you have a rubbish box, bosca bruscar.

  11. Yenlit says:

    It says in the etymology dictionary that ‘garbage’ originally meant the ‘giblets of fowl’. The word garbage is far more frequently used in US English than in British English.

  12. Sandra says:

    I had heard about the “dépanneur” thing. I can see how it can lead to akward or funny situations.
    There isn’t really a proper word for the Canadian “dépanneur” in France. The closest would be “épicier du coin”, I guess.

  13. Petréa Mitchell says:

    In my part of the world, no part of a discussion of garbage receptacles is complete without the recycling bin. “Bin” in the US means a container of a different shape than a garbage/trash can– squarish or rectangular, and usually wider than it is deep, whereas the archetypal trash can is round. (Yes, there are wastebaskets that are rectangular, but they’re wastebaskets, and no native of the US would call them bins. Unless you’re talking about a container of the same shape which is used for recycling. Then it could be a bin.)

  14. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Also there’s the euphemism “circular file” (usually used in offices) for wastebasket.

  15. phil says:

    I’m surprised you missed out the name commonly used in North America for the great big cuboidal bins on wheels – “dumpster”. We’ve all heard it from the crime shows where it appears that it is fairly common to find a corpse in a dumpster.

    There’s also the great alliterative term ‘dumpster-diving’ which is a kind of guerilla recycling, going into other people’s or companies’ refuse to find stuff that you can use.

    I had the feeling that a ‘bin’ originally was a feed container for ashes. On consulting the online etymology, I find that I’m spot on – ‘bin’ originally meant basket manger or crib.

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