I was saying to my Swedish teacher yesterday (på svenska, klart) that I like the word duk ('cloth') because I can guess a lot of duk words: näsduk ('nose cloth' = 'handkerchief'), halsduk ('neck cloth' = 'scarf'), bordduk ('tablecloth'), handduk ('hand cloth' = 'towel'). Thinking about duk got me thinking about a similarly useful word in English, bin. The tricky part is figuring out in which things Americans call bins and which things the British call bins.

Bin on its own in BrE is usually short for rubbish bin--i.e. AmE trash/garbage can or waste basket. In these you put a bin liner, which in AmE is garbage/trash bag (or in some parts of the US: garbage sack). A wheelie bin is the kind with wheels that you put outside by the (US) curb/(UK) kerb. I know someone who takes part in wheelie bin protests in Brighton. I'm afraid to tell him that I'm pro-wheelie-bin. The bins are a lot less ugly than rubbish (US trash) strewn all over the pavement (US sidewalk) by seagulls. Big wheelie bins would be called dumpsters in the US, but so would the things that are called skips in Britain. (Click the links for pictures.)

In BrE, bread is stored (not thrown away) in a bread bin, which in AmE is bread box.

Another bin I see a lot in the UK, but haven't heard in the US (though maybe an oenophile will tell me it's used there too) is a wine bin, which is a stack of bottles of wine. This gives rise to the notion of a bin end, that is, the last bottles of a certain wine, which are offered at reduced price. One of the big British off-licence (AmE liquor store, and many regional variations on this) chains is called Oddbins.

Both countries have storage bins and recycling bins, but only Americans name a part of the fridge the vegetable bin. Some Americans call the same fridge part a crisper. While I have found vegetable bin in fridge specifications in the UK, I believe that it's US copy. The UK equivalents I've heard are vegetable drawer (also good in the US), vegetable tray and vegetable box.

So, the moral of the story is that bin is a very useful word, but not so useful that you can predict with confidence which things will be called bin in another English-speaking country and which things won't. Containers in general suffer a lot of transatlantic name shifting, but I'll write about pots and cartons and jugs some other time...

Getting back to the Swedish start of this entry, I ought to give a little credit where it's due. Part of the inspiration for this blog is a lovely blog on the expatriate experience called How to Learn Swedish in 1000 Difficult Lessons. (I found this by chance when I started learning Swedish, then by chance found out that I'm two degrees of separation from its author, Francis Strand, but I've never had any contact with him.) As the name of the blog suggests, it does have a linguistic perspective, with a Swedish word of the day relating to whatever was discussed.


  1. Tell me, pretty please, which two degrees?

  2. I've responded by e-mail...

  3. Vänta bara tills du kommer i kontakt med finlandssvenska och finlandismer.

    Tr. Just wait until you come in contact with Finnish-Swedish and the identical words with different meanings than in Sweden.

    Not that it's a given that you ever will, but the difference there is similar to the topic of this blog; differences in pronunciation and terms. Not to forget the dialects in both countries...

  4. Jag talade lite svenska i Åbo två ar sedan--men jag kunde inte svenska tillrackligt för att märkera skillnaderna. Om någon skriver en blog om svenska dialekter skulle jag läser den.

    (Translation--if I got it right: I spoke a little Swedish in Åbo (Turku, Finland) two years ago--but I didn't know Swedish well enough to notice the differences. If someone is writing a blog about Swedish dialects, I'd read it! [so long as it's not in Finnish!])

  5. "I'll write about pots and cartons and jugs some other time..."

    When you do, don't forget packages and packets!

  6. In relatively recent years, "bin" has begun to be used as a verb in UK English, "bin it" being shorthand for "throw it away/put it in the bin".

    It has even acquired a past tense: "It was rubbish, so I binned it".

  7. Then there's the "loony bin". Do they have those in the UK?

  8. What about dustbin? I got called that once for eating a lot of food... (It was not in fact that much food.)

  9. The OED now traces the verb bin, in the sense 'to put in a waste-bin; to throw away; hence, by extension, to discard' to 1940, so the "relatively recent years" aren't in fact so very recent.

    There's a selective-attention effect called the recency illusion; when you first notice a word or phrase, it seems like it's quite new even if it's been around for decades.

  10. Incidentally, regarding "off-license" vs "liquor store", the usual Australian term is "bottle shop".

  11. It's bottle shop in South Africa, too.

  12. And as I mentioned in my email yesterday, a food bin where the contents are fed to chickens (AusE "chooks") is sometimes called a "chook bucket". At least, this was the term I grew up with on my parents' farm.

  13. My Irish mother says "vegetable crisper". I thought of teaching this to my housemates, who kept filling it with beercans; but decided it was best not to.

  14. Re: rubbish (BrE)/trash (AmE). In Hawaii, where my family is from, it's quite common to say "rubbish" rather than "trash" (perhaps a leftover from 19th century British influence in the islands?). I've gotten odd looks from people in my current home in Northern California when I mention cleaning up the "rubbish".

  15. And of course there's the "recycle bin" on the Windows desktop, which I assume to be equally well established in BrE and AmE thanks to Mr Gates' empire. It still sounds odd to me though, I would have called it a "recycling bin".

    Excellent post, reflecting how these things are rarely as simple as we might assume. Eg "dumpster" is not always "skip" but also refers to the large sort of 4-wheeled commercial wheelie-bin. Which makes me wonder how you specifically refer to that in AmE: wheeled dumpster or something?

    1. We would often refer to both, the container in the house and the one you put at the street for pick-up as "trash cans". Our street can didn't always have wheels on one end, and would need to be dragged or carried. But the context is always understood which "can" you're talking about depending on the sentence. Though we often don't use the word "trash can" when talking about the outside bin, and just say "take the trash out."

  16. The BrE term for the crisper/vegetable drawer at the bottom of a fridge is 'salador'. My wife corrupts this to 'salad drawer' and I suspect others do too.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)