A dirty baking plate

Dirt is unclean matter, especially when in contact with a person's clothes, skin or possessions when they are said to become dirty. Common types of dirt include:

  • dust — a general powder of organic or mineral matter
  • filth — foul matter such as excrement
  • grime — a black, ingrained dust such as soot
  • soil — the mix of clay, sand and humus which lies over the bedrock


Exhibitions and studies

A season of artworks and exhibits on the theme of dirt was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust in 2011. The centrepiece was an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection showing pictures and histories of notable dirt such as the great dust heaps at Euston and King's Cross in the 19th century and the Fresh Kills landfill which was once the world's largest.[1]


Computer keyboards are especially dirty as, on average, they contain 70 times more microbes than a lavatory seat.[2]


When things are dirty they are usually cleaned with solutions like hard surface cleaner and other chemicals; much domestic activity is for this purpose — washing, sweeping and so forth.[3]

In a commercial setting, a dirty appearance will give a bad impression of a place such as a restaurant. The dirt in such cases may be classified as temporary, permanent and deliberate. Temporary dirt is streaks and detritus that may be removed by ordinary daily cleaning. Permanent dirt is ingrained stains or physical damage which require major renovation to remove. Deliberate dirt is that which results from design decisions such as decor in dirty yellow or grunge styling.[4]


As cities developed, arrangements were made for the disposal of dirt. In Britain, the Public Health Act 1875 required households to place their refuse into a container which could be moved so that it could be carted away. This was the first legal creation of the dustbin.[5]


Modern society is now thought to be excessively clean. Lack of contact with microorganisms in dirt when growing up is hypothesised to be the cause of the epidemic of allergies such as asthma.[6] The human immune system requires activation and exercise in order to function properly and exposure to dirt may achieve this.[7] For example, the presence of staphylococcus bacteria on the surface of the skin regulates the inflammation which results from injury.[8]

People and animals may eat dirt. This is thought to be caused by mineral deficiency and so the condition is commonly seen in pregnant women.


People may become obsessed by dirt and engage in fantasies and compulsive behaviour about it, such as making and eating mud pies.[9] The source of such thinking may be genetic, as the emotion of disgust is common and a location for it in the brain has been proposed.[10]


  1. ^ Brian Dillon (Wednesday 23 March 2011), "Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Welcome Collection", The Daily Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8390859/Dirt-the-Filthy-Reality-of-Everyday-Life-Welcome-Collection.html 
  2. ^ The joy of dirt, The Economist, Dec 17th 2009, http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15108662 
  3. ^ Mindy Lewis (2009), Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House, ISBN 9781580052610, http://books.google.com/?id=pSEDkuksOI8C 
  4. ^ John B. Hutchings (2003), Expectations and the Food Industry, ISBN 9780306477096, http://books.google.com/?id=2WuPh5C9QpQC&pg=PA115 
  5. ^ V.K. Prabhakar (2000), Encyclopaedia of Environmental Pollution and Awareness in the 21st Century, p. 10, ISBN 9788126106516 
  6. ^ Dirt can be good for children, say scientists, BBC, 23 November 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8373690.stm 
  7. ^ Mary Ruebush (2009), Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, ISBN 9781427798046, http://books.google.com/?id=R4qRXShukoYC 
  8. ^ Lai, Y; Di Nardo, A; Nakatsuji, T; Leichtle, A; Yang, Y; Cogen, AL; Wu, ZR; Hooper, LV et al. (22 November 2009), "Commensal bacteria regulate Toll-like receptor 3–dependent inflammation after skin injury", Nature medicine (Nature Medicine) 15 (12): 1377–82, doi:10.1038/nm.2062, PMC 2880863, PMID 19966777, http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nm.2062.html 
  9. ^ Lawrence S. Kubie, "The Fantasy of Dirt", The Psychoanalytical Quarterly 6: 388–425, http://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=paq.006.0388a 
  10. ^ Valerie Curtis, Adam Biran (2001), "Dirt, Disgust, and Disease: Is Hygiene in Our Genes?", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44 (1): 17–31, doi:10.1353/pbm.2001.0001, PMID 11253302 

Further reading

  • Terence McLaughlin (1971), Dirt: a social history as seen through the uses and abuses of dirt, Stein and Day, ISBN 9780812814125 
  • Pamela Janet Wood (2005), Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia, Auckland University Press, ISBN 9781869403485 
  • Ben Campkin, Rosie Cox (2007), Dirt: new geographies of cleanliness and contamination, I.B. Tauris, ISBN 9781845116729 
  • Virginia Smith et al. (2011), Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Profile Books Limited, ISBN 9781846684791 

External links

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  • dirt — S3 [də:t US də:rt] n [U] [Date: 1200 1300; : Old Norse; Origin: drit] 1.) any substance that makes things dirty, such as mud or dust ▪ You should have seen the dirt on that car! ▪ His face and hands were black with dirt. ▪ a patch of grass,… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Dirt — (d[ e]rt), n. [OE. drit; kin to Icel. drit excrement, dr[=i]ta to dung, OD. drijten to dung, AS. gedr[=i]tan.] 1. Any foul of filthy substance, as excrement, mud, dust, etc.; whatever, adhering to anything, renders it foul or unclean; earth; as,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • dirt — [ dɜrt ] noun uncount * 1. ) soil or MUD (=soil mixed with water): Groups of children were playing in the dirt. mounds of dirt 2. ) a substance that makes something dirty: His face was covered in dirt. Angelo brushed the dirt off his coat. 3. )… …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

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  • dirt|y — «DUR tee», adjective, dirt|i|er, dirt|i|est, verb, dirt|ied, dirt|y| …   Useful english dictionary

  • dirt — 15c. metathesis of M.E. drit, drytt mud, dirt, dung (c.1300), from O.N. drit, cognate with O.E. dritan to void excrement, from P.Gmc. *dritanan (Cf. Du. drijten, O.H.G. trizan). Used abusively of persons from c.1300. Meaning gossip first attested …   Etymology dictionary

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  • dirt — dirt; dirt·en; dirt·i·ly; dirt·i·ness; …   English syllables

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