“Trash” and the Body Politic

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the etymology of the noun trash is “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. Applied to ill-bred persons or groups from 1604 (“Othello”), and especially of poor whites in the U.S. South by 1831. Applied to domestic refuse or garbage from 1906 (American English). Trash-can attested from 1914. To trash-talk someone or something is by 1989,” while the etymology of the verb is “”to discard as worthless,” 1859, from trash (n.); in the sense of “destroy, vandalize” it is attested from 1970; extended to “criticize severely” in 1975.” What I find really interesting about the etymology is that “trash” had originally been used to describe (perhaps supernumerary) natural refuse, while after Shakespeare used it in Othello, the connotation changed and the word was used to describe “ill-bred persons or groups.” “Trash” was also used to describe “poor whites in the U.S. South,” meaning that the word also undertook classist tones. With “trash” so enmeshed in societal oppressions, can we use the word without evoking classist/racist undertones, even subconsciously?

The reason I bring up the word “trash” is because of its use in The Tempest. When Prospero talks about his brother overtaking his throne, he says “[b]eing once perfected how to grant suits,/ How to deny them, who to advance, and who/ To trash for over-topping” (I.ii.). The footnotes in the Dover Thrift Edition, about the phrase “[t]o trash for over-topping,” clarify that the phrase means “[t]o restrain those who were inclined to be too assertive or forward. ‘To trash’ was a hunting term for checking the pace of a hound; ‘over topping’ is a gardening term for a too luxuriant growth” (5). “Trash” thus in this context means to stop from succeeding too greatly—and thus this relates to the Body Politic. Prospero, in talking about Antonio’s taking of the throne, says that he “[m]ade such a sinner of his memory,/ To credit his own lie, he did believe/ He was indeed the duke; out o’ the substitution,/ And executing the outward face of royalty” (I.ii.). Antonio, through substitution, becomes an effigy for the state and enacts the Body Politic through “trash[ing].” Therefore, in order “to trash,” one must have some kind of power.


According to Roach, the “law transmits effigies—constructed figures that provide templates of sanctioned behavior—across generations. Indispensably, performance infuses the artifacts of written law with bodily action, a meaning that obtains when it is said that a party to a contract ‘performs’” (55). Prospero states that “[t]o have no screen between his part he play’d/ And him he play’d it for, he needs will be/ Absolute Milan” (I.i..), and the footnote expands this by saying that this means “to remove everything that lay between the mere role of Duke and the Duke’s own being, between the shadow and the substance of the Duke’s authority, he must needs be actual Duke, Duke without restriction” (6). Thus, in Antonio’s rule, his performance of the body politic transcends the body natural, and his sanctioned behavior culminates in “trashing” Prospero. In order to trash, is an effigy necessary? Does one become the embodiment of the body politic in order to trash? Perhaps, yes. With the etymology of trashing taking on societally oppressive undertones, perhaps in order to trash, one must be an effigy representing the power of the state.

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