Q&A: Sewage vs sewerage

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking waste measurements…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about sewers.

A: Oh, people who stitch fabric together?

Q: Sorry, the other, smellier kind.

A: Ah. An underground conduit for carrying off drainage water and waste matter.

Q: Yeah that one.

A: What’s your question? 

Q: I see a lot of people referring to “sewage” and “sewerage” – what’s the difference?

A: It’s a good question.

Q: Well, let’s not waste any more time then.

A: Haha, “waste” time – nice one.

Q: Oh, um, thanks. I wasn’t really trying to be facetious… 

A: Did you say faeces-ish? We’d usually do that as number 2, but sure, we’ll start there. Macquarie Dictionary defines all this stuff as “sewage” – or “the waste matter that passes through sewers”.

Q: Okay, so why do so many people spell it as “sewerage”?

A: There are two reasons, but we’ll just tell you ONE for now. And that reason is because “sewerage” is ALSO a word – with a different meaning.

Q: What does it mean?

A: Sewerage is essentially the infrastructure that sewage passes through – so the pipes and sewers themselves are all under this definition. It’s the stuff built to dispose of all the waste.

Q: So is one of those treatment plants a “sewage plant” or a “sewerage plant”?

A: It’s a “sewage plant” – built to treat the sewage, with “plant” the infrastructure word in that case. Same goes for a “sewage treatment facility”.

Q: Is it called a “sewage system” also?

A: It gets a little bit messy here.

Q: Well duh.

A: No, we mean word-wise – as both “sewage system” and “sewerage system” are accepted. This is because it could be both depending on what it’s a system of – pipes or waste. 

Q: Oh, good point! But if you had to choose?

A: “Sewerage system” is usually the preferred term by Waste Water organisations, even though including the word “system” is somewhat redundant. Americans solve this problem by favouring the simpler term “sewer system” instead.

Q: Why did we end up with two words that are so similar anyway? 

A: The Middle Ages weren’t exactly a symphony of sanitation – the street was essentially the sewer, buckets and chamber pot contents thrown out the window.

Q: Charming.

A: It wasn’t until around 1600 that the first sewer channels were dug. The word “sewage” didn’t come along until 1818, with “sewerage” a little later, in 1832. Perhaps there was an “-age” fad on words at the time, resulting in both.

Q: How can I remember which word is which?

A: Well, “sewage” is the shorter word – the original product. Then you treat it at the “ER” – adding those two letters to give you “sewerage”.

Q: Hmmm, ER. I’ll think of George Clooney every time I think of sewerage from now on.

A: Perfect! For many he is indeed a pipe dream.

Q: You mentioned earlier that there were TWO reasons people spelt the raw waste as “sewerage”. So, what is number 2?

A: Hahaha.

Q: Don’t pooh-pooh my question! Number 2 please.

A: Pfffftttttttt

Q: Oh, okay, haha. Stop being so childish.

A: The other reason is those corner-cutting Americans again. As already mentioned, they prefer to just go with “sewers” or “sewer system” to describe the pipes and drains, leaving the spelling of the waste itself to be interchangeable – sewage OR sewerage. And with the USA such a dominant force online, that is what drives the confusing trends online.

Q: I wish those Americans would get their sh*t together…

A: Not sure about that, but they do chant, “we’re number 1” a lot…

Q: Hahahaha

A: Pffffffttttttttt.

Q: Okay, I’m quite drained from all this sewer chat.

A: All good. We have lots more topics in the pipeline…


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