Now Hear This

MOST PEOPLE HAVE HEARD OF THE Singapore Sling, but wait until you get wind of the New York Sanitation Department's (DSNY) latest concoction — sanitation slang. Although it is not a drink, sanitation slang is enriching conversations among city garbage workers. And just an earful of it is enough to make the average resident's head spin.

Expressions such as “disco rice” are used to describe maggots; “urban white fish” depicts used condoms; and the term “mongo” refers to salvaged garbage.

Not all of the catch phrases are as unfamiliar or as far-fetched. For example, industry insiders no doubt will know that the back of a truck is “the hopper” and a truck is a “white elephant.” But “if an outsider steps into a sanitation garage in the city, there is a good chance he will have no clue what's being said,” Robin Nagle recently told The New York Times. Nagle is an anthropology professor at New York University who has been studying sanitation culture since 1995.

Experts say the garbage workers have been developing their secret language for years, often based on workplace tasks. Some phrases that originated from the 1940s and '50s include “honey boat” (a garbage scow or barge), “airmail” (trash thrown from high windows) and “g-man” (a garbage man). And the trash talk has proliferated to the extent that it has become the focus of academic study.

But why the secret language?

The sanitation department's vocabulary has grown as policies and regulations have been enacted. For example, NIMBY (not in my backyard) has become a common term inside and outside of the industry.

Language and cultural experts say professional jargon also develops to make light of the toils of daily labor. This is why such slang often is tongue in cheek. Indulging in such humor builds camaraderie among fellow workers.

It appears that the stigma of slinging trash is what gives rise to the humor in a garbage worker's culture, agrees one DSNY observer. Garbage workers often feel as if they are taken for granted when compared with other city servicemen, such as police officers and firefighters. This sense of being unrecognized therefore leads them to develop a secret trade language.

Perhaps in using this lingo, garbage workers also want to make a point to the rest of the public.

Most of the time, sanitation departments accept that they are invisible armies who do essential cleanup jobs without recognition. But if just one person stops to ask, for example, what department officials meant when they said “banana” (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone), they'll know that for once, someone was listening to them.

And that kind of attention speaks louder than words, no matter how bizarre sounding.

The author is the editor of Waste Age