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shameless pleading

Dump

Dead tree blues.

Dear Word Detective: In the paperback book titled: “Conversations with Anne Rice” by author Michael Riley, author Anne Rice speaks about a “cardboard dump” made to be placed in a retail store to call attention to a product, in this case her book. I went to the omphalos of dictionary searches, www.onelook.com. I did not get any help. So I looked to my list of computer network information source files and picked the computer file titled “The Word Detective.” Any information that you can come up with about the words “cardboard dump” will be greatly appreciated. — Skylar Donovan Malone.

Well, right off the bat you get ten points for using the word “omphalos,” which means literally “navel” in Greek, but also referred to a sacred conical stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi that was supposed to mark the center of the earth. Today we use it to mean “hub” or “center.”

As for cardboard dumps, I know them well from my tenure in a regional chain bookstore many years ago in Columbus, Ohio. A precursor of Barnes & Noble, et al., the local franchise was owned by a husband and wife team of relentlessly unpleasant trolls. Our store, being across the street from Ohio State University, was considered the “literary” store in the chain. So imagine my surprise when the trolls decided one day that the first thing customers coming in to look for Shakespeare or James Joyce would see would be a enormous display, called a “dump,” made of garish pink cardboard, touting Marabel Morgan’s book “The Total Woman” (“It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him”). To say that this retrograde monstrosity did not go over well with our customers would be an understatement, and to fend off the torches and pitchforks we began eagerly passing out Mr. and Mrs. Troll’s phone number. The “dump” was gone within a few days, but the writing was on the wall and I decamped shortly thereafter.

So a “dump” in the bookstore sense is a self-supporting cardboard showcase displaying a particular featured book and usually festooned with smarmy advertising copy extolling the transformative power of said book. Dumps are usually found near the front of the store, and if they usually seem to be blocking your way, that’s on purpose.

There are actually four distinct “dumps” in English, the oldest of which, from the 16th century, meant a fit of absent-mindedness or depression. We still use this “dump” when we speak of being “down in the dumps.” Next, in the 18th century, came “dump” meaning a short, fat person or animal, still used in the adjectival form “dumpy.” About the same time yet another “dump” appeared, meaning a deep hole in the bed of a river or stream. The only thing all these “dumps” have in common is the fact that their origins remain mysteries.

The “dump” that is used to mean those cardboard displays appeared in English as a noun in the 19th century, but is based on the verb “to dump,” which dates back to Middle English and is of Norse origin. That verb means generally “to throw down, drop or discard,” and the noun, quite logically, originally simply meant a pile of stuff that had been “dumped,” including refuse (as in a “garbage dump”). In the early 20th century, around the time of World War I, “dump” took on the meaning of “a place where ammunition, provisions and equipment are stored for convenient access at a later date” (“The gunners may be called upon to fire at certain targets, such as cross-roads or houses used as infantry headquarters or ammunition and stores dumps,” 1919). That “collection of supplies” sense eventually gave us the cardboard merchandise “dump,” a temporary display designed to beguile consumers.

It’s not surprising, incidentally, that you hadn’t encountered this sense of “dump” before. It’s a bit of insider jargon used by publishers and booksellers but never to customers (to whom such contraptions are referred to as “displays”). Although “dump” has been used in this sense at least since the 1960s, the word is still commonly associated with its negative slang sense of “a run-down house, business or place,” and you don’t sell many books by conjuring up images of a hovel.

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