I know the differences in the meaning of word "trash" and "garbage" but how about "take out the trash" vs. "take out the garbage"? Can both these expressions be used interchangeably? What is the difference in meaning if any?

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  • Yes, they can be used interchangeably. – Mike Apr 2 '15 at 14:05
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    If you mean the phrase literally, as in "remove the waste from the premises," then they are basically interchangeable. (I feel like "trash" is slightly less formal than "garbage," but that may not be universally true.) If you mean the metaphorical use, as in "get rid of the bad [things/people]," my sense is that "take out the trash" is probably more common and appropriate. – Athanasius Apr 2 '15 at 14:05
  • possible duplicate of Difference between "garbage" and "trash"? – Peter Shor Apr 3 '15 at 1:06
  • Generally they are interchangeable. "Garbage" has the connotation of containing food waste or other messy stuff, whereas "trash" is sometimes interpreted to mean dry, non-messy waste. But the distinction is not always observed. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 1:13

It is legitimate to use these terms garbage and trash interchangeably in American English:

garbage

noun

1.1 A thing that is considered worthless or meaningless:

trash

noun

1.0 chiefly North American Discarded matter; refuse.

ODO American English

In many contexts, garbage might have a unique meaning as the etymologies imply:

garbage

"refuse, filth," 1580s; earlier "giblets, refuse of a fowl, waste parts of an animal (head, feet, etc.) used for human food" (early 15c., in early use also gabage, garbish, garbidge ), of unknown origin; OED says probably from Anglo-French "like many other words found in early cookery books." In its sense of "waste material, refuse" it has been influenced by and partly confused with garble (q.v.) in its older sense of "remove refuse material from spices;" Middle English had the derived noun garbelage but it is attested only as the action of removing the refuse, not the material itself.

Perhaps the English word originally is from a derivative of Old French garbe/jarbe "sheaf of wheat, bundle of sheaves," though the sense connection is difficult. This word is from Proto-Germanic *garba- (cognates: Dutch garf, German garbe "sheaf"), from PIE *ghrebh- (1) "to seize, reach" (see grab (v.)).

"In modern American usage garbage is generally restricted to mean kitchen and vegetable wastes" [Craigie]. Used figuratively for "worthless, offensive stuff" from 1590s. Garbage can is from 1901. Garbage collector "trash man" is from 1872; Australian shortening garbo attested from 1953. Garbology "study of waste as a social science" is by 1976; garbologist is from 1965.

trash

late 14c., "thing of little use or value, waste, refuse, dross," perhaps from a Scandinavian source (compare Old Norse tros "rubbish, fallen leaves and twigs," Norwegian dialectal trask "lumber, trash, baggage," Swedish trasa "rags, tatters"), of unknown origin.

Source etymonline.com, Emphasis mine.

When the distinction is needed, garbage is much more likely to be used in reference to food waste specifically. Trash may include food waste, but tends to a more generic reference. The distinction becomes important for households that separate refuse for processing in various ways:

  • Burning
  • Composting
  • Feeding
  • Recycling
  • Removal to the landfill
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    Growing up before recycling or air-quality statutes, rubbish went to our own rubbish burner, while garbage went to the dump. Now garbage goes down the garbage disposal, recycling goes to the recycling bins, composing to the composing bin, and trash goes to the landfill bin — but rubbish appears to have been blown away by the winds of time. – tchrist Apr 2 '15 at 15:16
  • @tchrist: Rubbish! In the UK at least, we still throw away our rubbish. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '15 at 16:09
  • @FumbleFingers As I said, we used to burn our rubbish when I was a lad. Now it’s all gone. :) – tchrist Apr 2 '15 at 21:30
  • @FumbleFingers - In the US we send our rubbish to Congress. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 1:15
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    This answer IMHO shows precisely why I don't like dictionary authority answers. The "In modern American usage..." sentence is garbage (and trash). Where I live they are the same. Reading the other answers, I'm not alone. So its just flat out wrong. – T.E.D. Apr 3 '15 at 2:08

When I was a teenager, newly moved to Rockland County, NY (NYC suburb), I was surprised that garbage and trash were two different things. Garbage was, and still is, your ordinary household refuse, while trash is stuff you don't throw away on a regular basis (i.e. old shoes, things you stored in the garage, etc.) There are two garbage pickup days per week, and only one trash day, and they are put out in different locations (garbage in your cans near the house, trash on the side of the road).

That being said, most people use the two words more or less interchangeably, and I don't perceive that one is more pejorative than the other.

Yes, they can be used interchangeably. There is no difference in meaning. They are synonyms.

Garbage can be seen as slightly more formal but the phrase take out the garbage is informal. You could say dispose of the garbage instead to sound more formal.

In Canada, we generally use the word "garbage", especially when referring to kitchen waste.

Also "take out the garbage" generally a phrase referring to kitchen waste, something a wife might say to husband (we generally forget) or sons (for some reason daughters rarely take out the garbage)

"trash" usually refers to non-food waste.

But having said that, the two words are interchangeable.

Given the difference in the responses I'm seeing, it appears to be a dialect issue. There isn't one answer covering all US English dialects.

I live in an area that speaks Midland, with a bit of South Midland, and the two words are nearly synonymous to me. My father-in-law (from New England) does seem to have some kind of distinction.

I say "nearly" because there is one important difference: when "taking out the trash/garbage" is used metaphorically to refer to getting rid of a person, "trash" has a more negative classist connotation, due to it also referencing the metaphor white trash.

  • It's not a dialect issue so much as a local community policy/practices issue. One town may define as "trash" what the next town over defines as "garbage". (And, of course, let's not forget "refuse".) – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 2:06
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    @HotLicks - I honestly don't think it would make sense to attempt such a thing here, because they mean the exact same thing to nearly everyone, so any "definition" would look to most people like it was made up on the spot. There is honestly no difference in nuance to grab hold of. It would be like trying to define the difference between a "street" and a "place" here (also synonymous. Our street names alternate between them.) – T.E.D. Apr 3 '15 at 2:11
  • "such a thing" as what? – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 2:13
  • @HotLicks - Such a thing as a policy that talks about defining a difference. There is no difference. They are the same thing, and there are no rules I'm aware of about treating different kinds of trash/garbage differently. Except perhaps recyclables. – T.E.D. Apr 3 '15 at 2:15
  • You said it was a dialect issue, I suggested that it was due more local community practices, unrelated to English dialect as commonly understood. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 2:17

Where I live in the American Midwest, garbage and trash are not the same, although there is a lot of overlap.

  • "Garbage" is somehow dirtier than trash. "Kitchen garbage" is one of the dirtiest, although it ranks with "diaper garbage".
  • "Trash" is stuff that's being thrown away, but not because it might rot or stink: office trash is mostly paper, boxes and office supplies.

In practice, using one in place of the other will almost never sound wrong. However, if used metaphorically, the nuance can be meaningful:

  • If I'm "taking out the garbage", I'm carrying something that is disgusting, that if it touches me, might make me dirty. If this is a euphemism for violence against a person, this conveys that that person is themselves dirty or disgusting.
  • "Taking out the trash" is more of a routine boring task that just has to be done. If I use this in reference to a person, it mostly just reflects that beating them up or throwing them out is no challenge, presumably because the person in question is significantly weaker than me.

They are generally interchangeable but "trash" is less formal and with "trash" there's a stronger connotation is of negative value or something more actively repulsive, compared to zero value.

This bit of language also relates to American culture that tends not to see the potential value in various waste streams, that might be reclaimed even by somebody else via recycling, composting, etc.

Finally, "trash" is aliterative and helps with flow.

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