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What Actually Is a Dirtbag?

Besides, you know, the person looking back at you in the mirror. Is a dirtbag an actual object?

As someone whose favorite movie is Joe Dirt, I feel like I know what a dirtbag is. But where did dirtbag status originate? Surely, a physical object called a “dirtbag” must have existed prior to it becoming a cultural moniker for general trashiness

I’d always assumed it referred to a vacuum bag, but apparently that’s typically referred to either simply as a vacuum bag or a dust bag. Is there a difference between dirt and dust? That will be the first question I ask God when I meet them. For now, I’ll attempt to answer the question of what precisely is a dirtbag (and the difference between dirt and dust) on my own.

According to a dive into the topic from Coast Mountain Culture, a climbing and mountain sport-centric magazine, the first reference of someone as a “dirtbag” in the media occurred in coverage of the 1976 death of Olympic ski racer Spider Sabich. Per CMC, the term has long had its usage among mountain athletes, with Sabich himself identifying as a dirtbag despite his relatively clean-cut appearance. For most of those who devoted their time and money to spending their days on rocky cliffs, however, the term was better fitting. Still, while “dirtbag” may have a rich history within that specific milieu, there isn’t a perfect explanation of its origin within it. 

Elsewhere on the internet, plenty of thought has been given to what type of lifestyle choices qualify as dirtbaggery — “kill your TV, go outside” — but none of them will tell me what the fuck a dirtbag was before it became some sort of aspirational term for people who’ve just quit their day jobs to travel. Even the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries deliver this type of metaphoric definition. Did it just come from nowhere?

I guess, sort of. 

While there are few objects someone might regularly refer to as a “dirtbag,” there are things that qualify as bags of dirt. A bag of soil is a dirtbag. A bag of sand is kind of a dirtbag. Both of them are low-value, floppy masses of dead weight. You may want to wash your hands after handling. Certainly you’d avoid bringing them into your house. Yet, there are many scenarios where we’re dependent upon them. What else are you going to build your garden from? How else will you make futile attempts to prevent the flood waters from rising?

It seems that, like “dickweed,” this is simply one of those words or phrases that, despite little meaning, have stuck. Perhaps at one time it was a term to take offense to — for some, it might still be — but its history suggests that it’s almost always been a term of endearment among those who identify with it. Besides, vacuum bag just doesn’t have the same ring to it.