The anatomy of a semantic mishap

Last night I threw out a bunch of my neighbors’ stuff.

It was an accident. And they recovered their stuff before it was truly lost. And I think this record will show that I did not act too strangely. But I still feel bad about it, and I’m going to be a bit more cautious in such situations in the future. And I like to ramble on uselessly about these sort of weird corner-cases in life, so here goes.

I am the unofficial trash-curber for my duplex (the neighbors I’m referencing are the people in the other apartment). I took on that role when I moved in, after a little discussion with the previous tenant in my apartment, and figuring that it’s easier to just be that guy than to try to work out some scheme to share the work.

Last night, the night before garbage day, I went to put stuff out to the curb. There was the one trash bin full. Closely adjacent to it, probably an inch away, were a computer case and one of those plastic storage bins. Adjacent to those were a sorta homemade-looking plastic/wood thingy and another storage bin. I got the flashlight and inspected more closely. One bin seemed to be mostly empty bottles and stuff. Don’t recall exactly what was in the other bin. Some of this stuff I had seen in a pile elsewhere in the carport for a few weeks.

Overall, my thought process was: the whole list above constitutes a ‘pile’ by virtue of transitive adjacency. On a scale from 0-10, 0 = obvious treasure, 10 = obvious trash, this stuff was all in the 4-9 range by my visual judgment. Nothing in the pile was something I hadn’t seen in trash piles or thrown out myself. Since I’d seen it piled elsewhere, and now it was all in the candidate trash pile, it was probably a final status transition from ‘maybe we need it and will take it into the house some day’ to ‘nah, it’s trash’. So, the candidate trash pile is now a certified trash pile, and I’ll move it all to the curb.

Later that night, I heard some bumping about outside, and when I looked out, all that stuff was gone from the curb. The scavengers in the neighborhood have been known to be fast, but not that thorough, so I kinda figured it must be the neighbors recovering the stuff. This morning, I heard the neighbors leaving, so I ran out and asked, and indeed, I had incorrectly judged the pile, but they got everything back.

This all makes me quite curious about the semantics of trash piles. Trash in general, too. In some web searches, I came across Purity and danger : an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, which looks pretty interesting. See, I’m not so crazy for being somewhat fascinated by this stuff; some book author is too.

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