carts and trolleys

This entry is inspired by a BBC News headline about a court case regarding a tragic event here in Brighton:

Reversing dustcart 'caused death'

The headline left me with a touch of cognitive dissonance, since in AmE carts tend to be small, relatively powerless things--like the cart that a donkey might pull or a go-cart. And dust, well, is dust. It wouldn't need a large vehicle, would it? But, of course, a (BrE) dustcart (which is staffed by dustmen) is what Americans would call a garbage truck (staffed by garbage men--though, of course, in both countries I'm sure that their official job titles are suitably euphemistic). In the BBC News article, they also refer to the vehicle as a refuse lorry (=AmE truck--kind of...but that's another post for another time).

So, it left me thinking of other kinds of carts. Like (AmE) shopping carts, which in BrE are shopping trolleys. Which made me think of other trolleys, like (BrE) tea trolleys or serving trolleys, which in AmE would be tea carts or serving carts. Which made me think of the announcement one hears at the (BrE) railway station/(orig. AmE) train station: "A trolley service of soft drinks and light refreshments will be available on this train." One usually has to go to the café car on an American train to buy refreshments, but if they did come around with refreshments-on-wheels, it would not be called a trolley service. In fact, the only AmE use of trolley that I can think of is one that the OED marks as AmE: "an electric car driven by means of a trolley", the latter trolley being a kind of pulley system. In the US these might also be called (as in San Francisco) cable cars. [See comments for correction of my understanding of the pulley system involved!] In the UK, such things are generally called trams--a term which no longer implies the use of a pulley system. The trams found in the UK would be called streetcars in many dialects of AmE. The OED marks an AmE sense of tramway, referring to the cables on which suspended cars travel--but I can't claim any first-hand knowledge of that sense.

Photos from image-searching dustcart and tea trolley. For a past post on (BrE) rubbish/(AmE) garbage collection, see this one.


  1. Albuquerque, NM boasts a major street named "Tramway," as it leads to the world's longest aerial tramway, a suspended gondola-thingy that leads up to the top of Sandia Mountain ( for pictures). That's at least one use of the "tramway" terminology in AmE.

  2. Another example of a tramway in the US:
    Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

    This tramway takes you from the desert floor (and often blistering heat) to snow-capped mountains and a beautiful pine-covered valley in only 15 minutes.

  3. Another great post, thanks for the laugh. I love the word trolley, what a shame its not used in america. You cant call air hostesses trolley dollys!! Another similar confusion is trucks and lorrys.

    Palm springs tramway is a cable car as far as I'm concerned too!

  4. Less beautifully but closer to home -- by which of course I mean MY home -- is the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

    Cable cars are a very special and now exceedingly rare type of streetcar, where an actual cable runs below the street and the cars hook onto it. The Cable Building on Houston Street and Broadway in New York once held the coil of cable for such a system. Most trolleys in the US were (and if they survive, are) electric cars, powered by an overhead electric line, I think.

    What are the little vehicles that books ride on called in British libraries? In our library they are sometimes "trucks" and sometimes "carts," and I'm not sure I know why one chooses one or the other.

  5. "an electric car driven by means of a trolley", the latter trolley being a kind of pulley system

    Few light rail systems in the U.S. use trolleys (in the sense of wheels rolling against an overhead electric wire) any more; almost all of them use either pantographs pressed against the wire, or in a few cases third rails; in all these cases, however, the cars are still informally called trolley cars or trolleys.

    As nbm says, cable cars use a moving cable which the streetcar is either attached to or grips; cable cars in the UK sense are aerial tramways.

  6. nbm, do you mean the kind of things that look like low bookcases on wheels? They'd be book trolleys in BrE. If you do a Google image search for "book trolley", you'll see what I mean.

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  8. Looking up "go-cart," I find that, at least in America, the sense that I would use the term (small racing vehicle which might or might not be powered) is supposed to be spelt "go-kart," and the way I would spell it (with a 'c,' listed as a variant of the other spelling) seems very BrE to me (whatever that means coming from an American). The other denotations: a handcart; a stroller; archaic, a baby walker; seem more like the BrE 'trolley' to me.

    To my way of thinking, the addition of 'go' signifies that one does not push the thing around (which would make it a push-cart), but that it is used as a means of conveyance (either with a motor, or by going downhill). what else would distinguish a go-cart from a regular cart?

  9. The LUAS, Dublin's light rail system, is called a tram even on streetsigns. "Tram" now seems to mean "rails built on the street" rather than "single-carriage".

    Web shops like Amazon have familiarised Brits with "shopping cart"; some British webshops use "cart" rather than "trolley" (analogy with e-mail, not e-post)

    In Ireland one would never say "dustman", still less "dustcart". It's "bin man" and "bin lorry" (increasingly, "bin truck").

  10. The only place in the UK where I've seen road vehicles pulled by a cable is at Llandudno in North Wales, where they take sightseers from a station in the town up onto the Great Orme, a rocky hill jutting out into the sea. The system is called the Great Orme Tramway. The cars are fixed to the cable (I think this arrangement is called a funicular), unlike the San Francisco cable cars which are started and stopped by attaching and releasing a cable grip.

    Llandudno also has cable cars in the British sense - cars riding high, suspended from a cable, as at a ski resort. I can't imagine referring to these as a tramway. Trams are weighty, earthbound things, like the double-decker tramcars at Blackpool; they run on tracks, often set in the road, and draw current from overhead cables.

    Trolley buses have rubber tyres like a bus but draw power from overhead cables like a tram. They haven't been seen in British cities since the early 1970s, though though they remain common in continental Europe, and Leeds is considering re-introducing them.

    'Trolley' would not normally be used for a road vehicle in Britain. The Trolley Song puzzled me as a child. Was it a shopping trolley or a tea trolley?

  11. I would never use the word Dustcart, and I'm not sure I've ever heard another Brit us it either, although the meaning is obvious - I suspect it got used in this instance as shorter words fit headlines better. I'd say Dustmen's Lorry or Rubbish Truck normally.

    British headline English can be quite a different beast to normal spoken or written British English.

  12. To me (I'm British) carts and trolleys are very different things, but this made me wonder what the distinction I'm making is.

    I think "cart" tends to imply an agricultural or rural setting, "trolley" an industrial, urban or domestic one. In my mental picture, carts have bigger wheels than trolleys - but that may just be because you need big wheels to cope with deeply rutted farm tracks, and little ones to glide the desserts across the polished restaurant floor.

    I use "cart" as a verb - "I've carted these books around all day" - even when no wheels are involved, but I think it's much rarer to trolley something. I might also, in a moment of empathy failure, say of someone "he's off his trolley" to mean he's mentally deranged.

    A particular kind of trolley in the UK is a bogie.

  13. "Trolley" is also used in several U.S. cities (San Antonio, Texas, and St. Petersburg, Fla., for sure) to mean buses built to look like the trolley cars you describe, but they're moved by internal combustion engines, not electrical motors.

  14. What really puzzles me (as a Brit) is the use of 'gondola' for a (going up a mountain type of) cable car, as this word to me means a small pole-propelled boat used primarily on the canals of Venice. When I first heard about the 'Banff Gondola' I assumed Banff must have a canal system, or at least a lake!

    I also think of funiculars (a word I just love) as being water powered (but that may be just the Lynton and Lynmouth one).


  15. The first tramways in GB were in mining areas c. late 18th-early 19th century, and - I have always understood - were travelled by horse-drawn wagons on a rail , carrying coal from mine to canal or river for onward transport .

  16. I've never seen go-kart spelled with a 'c'. There's a good track up in King's Cross (well, there was until it shut) which refers to "karting" and "karts" on its website.

    1. BrE. I seemed to recall that it was spelled with a c in Dickens. I’ve just looked it up, and it’s in David Copperfield (p446 in the online version I found, spoken by Mr. Omer). However, from the context, it seems to be a kind of wheelchair.

  17. Reminds me of the time my English friend visitied me here (Chicago). She wanted to buy her dad an umbrella which would clip onto the side of his golf CART. However, when she asked the salesman for "a brolly to go on the side of the golf trolley" he was utterly flummoxed!

  18. I'm a Brit (London/SE), and I'd probably say bin lorry or dustbin lorry rather than dustcart - although I am familiar with that term.

  19. Certainly dustcart and dustmen are not the most common terms these days, BBC headlines notwithstanding. I tend to hear binmen, but have no clear recollections of hearing people talking about the vehicles.

  20. I also have seen that the British call an earth-moving vehicle a "tipper lorry" (please correct me if I am wrong). To my American ears, this also causes quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. The brutishness of such a vehicle simply doesn't match up to the American "dump truck."

  21. alan paxton -

    By the "Trolley Song", do you mean the Trolley Song from the film "Meet Me in St. Louis"? The trolley referred to in that song is the streetcar that Judy Garland is riding in.

  22. "I also have seen that the British call an earth-moving vehicle a "tipper lorry" (please correct me if I am wrong). "

    We tend to call them JCBs or diggers. I don't think I've ever heard the term "tipper lorry"

  23. A JCB/digger is different from a dump truck. I've not done dump trucks yet, but I have done JCBs here.

  24. pox - yes, I mean the Judy Garland song, but I met it outside of its cinematic context (my mother used to sing the chorus), hence my puzzlement as a child.

    Itinerantlondoner - I grew up in England familiar with the words 'dustcart' and 'dustmen', although 'binmen' was common too. I realised quite what a euphemism 'dust' was when I came across the 'dustheaps' in Dickens' 'Our Mutual Friend'- huge waste-dumps on the fringes of Victorian London.

    anonymous Rufus - of course balloons and airships have 'gondolas' too...

  25. Ah. I'd call a dump truck a dump truck myself, but that might be from my American parents. You don't see them very often here.

  26. I disagree with your interpretation ("a kind of pulley system") of the OED entry for trolley in AmE: "an electric car driven by means of a trolley".

    In the early days of "electric cars" -- whether trolleybuses or trams (AmE streetcars) -- which drew their power from overhead energized lines, they did so by dragging a little wheeled cart or "trolley" along the aerial "track" from which they picked up the electrical current.

    Later this arrangement was simplified by substituting a spring-loaded rigid pole (still called a "trolley pole" however) with a wheel or groove which pressed against the underside of the overhead wire.

    Trams running on steel rails use the rail to return the current, so needed only a single pole. Rubber-tired trolleybuses, however, require two wires and a pair of trolley poles to complete the citcuit. Nowadays, most trams use pantograph collectors rather than poles although trolley poles remain in use in some places (e.g. Philadelphia).

    What the OED was drawing attention to by "AmE: an electric car driven by means of a trolley" is the fact that in BrE the word "trolley" in this context refers to the wheeled or grooved device at the top of the trolley pole that runs along the overead line, whereas in the USA it can mean the whole vehicle (powered by trolley collection).

  27. I would be very surprised to hear a San Francisco cable car referred to as a trolley, since they have never been powered from an overhead electrical wire, which is the essence of a streetcar called a "trolley." In this area (I can see San Francisco across the Bay from my home and office, both in Oakland) we have electric streetcars and trolly busses in San Francisco (in additon to the cable cars) and BART, which uses third-rail electric power. There are newer systems in Santa Clara County and the Sacramento area, both "trolleys" using overhead electric wires, even though some may use pantograph or bow collectors instead of poles. The poles have used sliding shoes instead of rotating wheels for many years now.

  28. The trolley bus is in use in at least two American cities - San Francisco and Boston - but is usually just called an electric bus. I used to ride one often in San Francisco and remember the driver having to stop and get out a pole to push the mechanism back onto the power line.

    The use of gondola for what some are calling a cable car is common in ski areas, at least in New England. I often see them advertise how many chair lifts and how many gondolas they operate.

  29. Kevin, I'll bow to your better understanding of the matter. Here's the relevant OED definition of 'trolley':

    "A grooved metallic pulley which travels along, and receives current from, an overhead electric wire, the current being then conveyed by a trolley-pole or other conductor to a motor, usually that of a car on a street railroad; also called trolley-wheel (see 4). Also applied to any pulley running along an overhead track, as in a trolley-scale (see 4)."

    I wasn't able to picture what this was...until now.

    Looking it up on the interweb, I was reminded of the character Trolley from Mr Rogers' Neighborhood--a program(me) that meant a lot to me as a child. It saddens me a bit that I live in a place where no one else here joins in when I sing "It's a beautiful day in the neighbo(u)rhood, a beautiful day for a neighbo(ur), would you be mine? Could you be mine?"

    (They're all singing along to songs I've never heard of either. This kind of activity increases hundredfold when there's a baby around...)

  30. Lynne, you can hear the Mr Rogers song on
    this YouTube video. Don't forget to watch out for the trolley poles! (One raised, one lowered, on each car ...OK, that's enough tram buffery for one day, Kevin)

  31. Where on the mainland of Europe are trolley buses common? I've travelled a fair bit especially in central Europe, and I have never in my life seen one.

  32. Depends on your definition of Europe, but there are lots in St Petersburg. I assume Moscow has them as well, but I don't recall seeing anyway (I was too busy checking out the awesome Metro stations).

  33. Where on the mainland of Europe are there trolleybuses?

    Athens, Banská Bystrica, Basel, Belgrade, Bergen, Berne, Biel, Brașov, Brno, Bucharest, Budapest, České Budějovice, Chomutov, Cluj, Coimbra, Constanța, Debrecen, Eberswalde, Esslingen, Fribourg, Gdynia, Geneva, Ghent, Hradec Králové, Jihlava, Jirkov, Kaunas, Kiev (and 24 other Ukrainian cities - including an 80-km long route between Simferopol and Yalta), Košice, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Landskrona, Lausanne, Limoges, Lublin, Lucerne, Lyon, Mariánské Lázně, Mediaș, Milan, Minsk, Montreux, Moscow (and 86 other Russian cities - not all of them in Europe), Nancy, Neuchâtel, Opava, Ostrava, Otrokovice, Pardubice, Pernik, Pilsen, Ploiești, Plovdiv, Prešov, Rome, Saint-Étienne, Schaffhausen, Sibiu, Sofia, Solingen, Sopot, St. Gallen, Szeged, Tallinn, Teplice, Timișoara, Tychy, Ústí nad Labem, Varna, Veliko Tarnovo, Vevey, Vilnius, Winterthur, Žilina, Zlín, and Zürich.

  34. "Dustcart" was new to me when I came to London, because I grew up in the north of England.

    In the north we had "bin lorries", staffed by "binmen".

    Teacher in northern school: Where's the bin?
    Child: I've been home for me lunch, of course.

  35. Home for me lunch? Me dinner, surely!

  36. In America, a go-cart (-kart?) has a motor. Without an engine, it's a soapbox racer or soapbox derby car.

  37. Bit late I know but here in Devon the they do say dustcart whereas I(from the Midlands) say dustbin lorry.

    Another local word I had never heard until I came here was Scavenger, as in "I've got to put the bin out for the Scavenger"

  38. There used to be a trolley service on the BedPan (Bedford-St Pancras) line. The company put out a leaflet hyping it, which promised passengers an enhanced 'in-seat experience'.

  39. The euphemism in the US, anyway, is "sanitation worker".

  40. It's fun to live in an older American city like Boston, where we have at least one of every single type of vehicle mentioned so far. The subways (all of which travel aboveground for at least part of their journey...) generally have "cars" (which run on third-rail electricity). The Green Line (the oldest line) has trolley cars - they run on overhead electrical lines. We also have the "electric buses" (again, overhead lines) along with regular diesel buses and newer LP gas hybrid buses. For me, "trams" are inextricably linked with Disney World - the trams are the gasoline-powered chains of little golfcart-like vehicles that take you from the massive parking lot to the entrance gates (trams may also be part of an amusement park ride, or a tour through a "natural habitat"-style park).

  41. Ooh, don't forget "pantechnicon" for a removal van. Possibly a little out of usage these days? My gran used it last week and I had completely forgotten about it.

  42. Loving this blog, as a Yank living in Ireland. NB we call them "bin lorries" here :)

  43. The dust which dustmen took away in the dustcart may have included the grey/gray stuff that still settles on furniture, but in former times the dustiest stuff was the ash from domestic fires and boilers. If there had been plastic then, dustbins couldn't have been made of it because folks would put such ash in them while it was still hot. Some of the few surviving dustbins (and wheely-bins) have warnings on them not to put-in hot ash.

    Communal metal dustbins were used in the second world war to collect food-waste for feeding to pigs. They would get quite rank in summer. Mischievous boys would lean them against people's front doors, bang on the knocker, hide behind the hedge, and then watch what happened when the householder opened the door and the bin fell in.

  44. Living on the US West coast, we give the words quite (AmE i.t.s.) opposite meanings. A "tram" is used to refer exclusively to an enclosed gondola (carriage?) suspended -- and pulled -- by a cable. To wit, "the tram." "Tram" would never be used to refer to a thing rolling along tracks on the ground. That would be a trolley, or more commonly, streetcar (ala these). "Trolley" tends to evoke thoughts of San Francisco's trolleys (which were, historically, cable-cars) and the ringing-bell sound that accompanies them. These were, I imagine, the basis of the Mr. Rogers' trolley.

    There are also funitels, distinguished from trams by having cables on both edges of the gondola. (Some places, usually ski resorts it seems, refer to trams as gondolas. This confuses the issue as gondolas are also attached to hot-air balloons.) Funiculars have the cable underneath, and usually follow tracks, which I suppose makes them similar to trolleys. I wouldn't refer to a streetgoing vehicle as a funicular though, just as I wouldn't refer to something going up the side of a mountain as a trolley.

    Cart (around here, usually used in reference to food carts) may be powered (as in golf cart or go-cart) or not (library book cart, serving cart). As for the "go-kart" spelling, I've always thought that an intentional misspelling for the sake of trademarkability.

    I just found your blog, and it's an interesting read, so thanks!

  45. Anonymous: Fred Rogers lived in Pittsburgh, so he was well familiar with trolleys (and also funiculars, called "inclines" there).

  46. Lynne

    In fact, the only AmE use of trolley that I can think of is one that the OED marks as AmE: "an electric car driven by means of a trolley", the latter trolley being a kind of pulley system.

    And yet the expression off his trolley seems to be shared. The OED gives one US quote dated 1976. More to the point there were two Hollywood films with that title (unless somebody has been scattering misinformation on the Web).

    Re dustcart, Lonny Donnegan had a hit in my youth which included:

    Oh, my old man's a dustman
    He wears a dustman's hat
    He wears cor blimey trousers
    And he lives in a council flat

    I say, I say, I say
    My dustbins full of lillies
    (Well throw 'em away then)
    I can't Lilly's wearing them!

    Now one day while in a hurry
    He missed a lady's bin
    He hadn't gone but a few yards
    When she chased after him
    'What game do you think you're playing'
    She cried right from the heart
    'You've missed I too late?'
    'No... jump up on the cart!'

  47. It's not given the meaning in my Chambers English Dictionary but in his last completed novel Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens makes much of 'dust' which he gives the sense of general junk. It's literally the stock-in-trade of, and the source of the wealth of, John Harmon the contract 'dust-collector' whose will provides the pivot for a convoluted plot, and the heaps of 'dust' in Harmon's yard are a metaphor for hoarded wealth.

  48. In "The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy" (New York: Warner, 1971), Allan Eyles told of a 1965 interview in which Groucho Marx said, "This morning I am awakened by a great din and am told it's the dustman. I told him to get lost. Who needs dust?" It doesn't mention who the interviewer was or on which side of the Atlantic the interview took place. (Eyles was a British author.) If the interview was in a North American medium, then the word "dustman" was presumably in circulation in American English as of 1965 or at least known to the audience of the interview.

  49. To me (BrE) a cart is a vehicle that has to be pulled, so it feels odd to use the word for the thing you push round the supermarket.
    "Dustcart" for a bin lorry is of course a relic of the days when the dustman used a horse and cart and, as Enitharmon says, "dust" was a Victorian euphemism for domestic waste.

    1. Kate, what picture do you see when someone says going to hell in a handcart?

  50. The OED reports a technical difference among those who specialise in load-carrying vehicles. For them, a cart has two wheels; a four-wheeled vehicle is called a waggon.

    (Wikipedia says 'wagon or dray'. But the OED distinguishes a dray as a waggon without built-up sides.)

    Clearly this distinction is not rigidly applied in popular speech, yet many of the so-called carts that I can think of are/were two-wheeled and hauled by horses. I suspect that the first vehicles to be called dustcarts were of this pattern.

    When we lived in Egypt (forty years ago), household rubbish was collected on two-wheeled donkey-carts like this

  51. BrE,Scot, mid 60s. At the time of writing, the U.K. is still (though not for much longer) part of Europe. To the above list I would add Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh, although I’m sure there are more.

    In AmE, where do garbage trucks discharge their contents? In most of the U.K., it is the tip, or occasionally still, the dump. In the Scots dialect, it used to be the cowp. Cowp can also mean knock over, often with the sense of knock over and spill contents. The vehicle that took rubbish to the tip was the cowp cairt (cairt = cart).

  52. It's 'dump' in AmE. Thanks for all your comments!


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AmE = American English
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