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Is there a general term in the English language that is all-encompassing when it comes to denoting the stuff you suck up from your carpet using vacuum cleaners? I usually just say dirt, but it feels too restricted. I want a term that will evoke the image of an assortment of mud, sand, dirt, food scraps, glass shards, pieces of plastic and more.

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    dirt in the context of what a vacuum cleaner sucks up off the floor is about as broad a term as you will get here. In this context, dirt doesn't refer only to the stuff plants grow in. If it has to include glass shards, I don't think there is such a word. Jul 14 '17 at 12:05
  • Indeed, in Br Eng, 'dirt' doesn't primarily mean the stuff plants grow in - we'd usually use 'soil' for that - but 'dirt' still apples to the contents of the vacuum cleaner.
    – peterG
    Jul 15 '17 at 16:19
  • Philip K. Dick called it "kipple".
    – paul
    Jul 15 '17 at 18:49
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"Debris" or "detritus" are both words for what you are describing:

detritus: waste or debris of any kind

debris: scattered pieces of rubbish or remains.

"Rubbish" or "trash" would mean to most people things composed mostly of litter (things people would throw away on the street), but in some cases can be used to refer to broader materials such as broken glass or pieces of plastic- for example: "There are giant islands of rubbish in the middle of the ocean, created by converging currents". However, "rubbish"/"trash" generally does not include sand/dirt/mud.

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    Don't these terms suggest something too big for a vacuum cleaner to suck up off the floor? Jul 14 '17 at 12:06
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo "Detritus" to me is by default small. Without context, "debris" would be larger than a vacuum cleaner could pick up, but I wouldn't have any issue with it in context. (That is, "debris" doesn't rule out being very small.)
    – R.M.
    Jul 14 '17 at 14:59
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    @R.M. - I agree. In the right context, debris works fine. I just Googled empty the debris from and found plenty of hits regarding swimming pool filters and vacuum cleaners, like this one: And when you're done vacuuming, simply empty the debris from the high-capacity dirt cup.
    – J.R.
    Jul 14 '17 at 16:54
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    Debris and detritus are both excellent words, though I'd lean towards detritus, as it suggests smaller bits as @R.M. suggested. Detritus is perhaps less common in day-to-day usage than debris but I feel it's more appropriate.
    – Doktor J
    Jul 14 '17 at 18:30
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    @R..: I'm American and I'm entirely familiar with the term. It's a bit formal, certainly, but I wouldn't call it unnatural.
    – Kevin
    Jul 15 '17 at 3:55
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A few words that may be used for the things you get from cleaning a carpet:

  • Muck
  • Residue
  • Debris
  • Dirt
  • Crud
  • Gunk
  • Filth
  • Waste

There are many more words, but the thing to keep in mind is that, all the words, including these words, may mean different things when it comes to the substances you're talking about.

For example, if you choose the word 'Muck', know that the word is used for dirt that has a wet or sticky texture. So you cannot use muck if you want to generalize dirt, with objects such as glass.

The word you choose will include many types of substances, but may exclude another array of things. The highest level of generalization would require you to use the word 'dirt' itself.

The word 'filth' is an unwanted substance that may be considered gross. So you might not relate it to something that you get from dirty carpets. But I've put it here because it is synonymous to dirt.

Please refer the meaning of these words before you use them.

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In Britain we often refer to it as Grot.

This describes any collection of unpleasant material such as the stuff in a hoover bag. It also appears as an adjective grotty, which can describe an unpleasant object or situation.

The word is said to be derived from grotesque but I've never seen anything reliable to confirm that.

As an aside, although the word has been in use for many years, it increased in popularity as a plotline in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The 1970's BBC Comedy.

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    I don't think the noun form grot is much used in Britain (or anywhere else, for that matter). There are only 2 hits in Google Books for clear the grot - both centuries old (and both look like OCR errors for ground anyway). In contrast, there are an estimated 169 hits for clear the crud. Jul 14 '17 at 14:33
  • Also a general google search for "vacuum the grot" gets one hit. "vacuum the dirt" gets 226,000. Actually that is a solid vote in favor of using "grot" :) Jul 14 '17 at 16:09
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In an informal setting, you could call it crud:

Dirt, filth or refuse

It fits perfectly. "Crud" is generic enough to cover all forms of unpleasantness you describe in your question, while also suggesting sorta indoorsy solid clumps or particles. "Muck", as suggested in another answer, is somewhat similar but more outdoorsy and liquid.

I don't like "detritus" or "debris" very much: they're not wrong, and are words you could use to refer to objects the reader already knows about. But when trying to introduce a new object, both debris and detritus suggest much larger objects. For example, collapsed buildings leave debris in the form of multi-ton slabs of concrete or whatever. Detritus includes the same objects, but also small-to-medium stuff: I might have detritus lying around on my desk in the form of paperwork that needs to be filled out, empty coffee cups, or the like. But crud is smaller stuff like you might scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

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  • +1 for that nifty differentiation between muck and crud.
    – J.R.
    Jul 14 '17 at 19:32
  • In my experience, "crud" refers to dirt (of whatever form/origin) that's become stuck on a surface by mixing with moisture, oils, etc. and that's difficult to remove. Not something you could get up with a vacuum cleaner. Jul 15 '17 at 1:28
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If your meaning is a varied collection of items distinguished by their small size and uselessness, you are informally talking about crap, junk, or shit.

If you are using vacuum in your sentence, the small size is already implied. If someone dumped a vacuum cleaner bag out on your bed and you just noticed it, I think you might say 'what is this crap all over my bed'.

In a formal setting, you might look to a more clinical word like detritus, e.g. 'what is this pile of fine detritus was residing upon my bed'

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