Word Stories: Wash

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the origin of the word “wash” and related words like “whitewash” and “sportswash”.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. The podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in around 10 minutes.

Today, I have a light blue episode for you. If you look on my website, EnglishwithStephen.com, you will see that the image for this episode has a light blue border. All of the light blue episodes are Word Stories, where I tell you a story about the origins of a word or words and the journey it has taken to arrive where it is today.

And today’s word is “wash”. Actually, I am going to start out by looking at the origin of the word “wash”, but I am then going to focus on how it is very often used today with other words such as “whitewash”, “greenwash”, “pinkwash”, “rainbowwash and I don’t know how many other types of wash.

All of that washing, after this.

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And so to the word “wash”.

As I have mentioned many, many times before, this word comes to English from German. It was used in Old English as a verb and was pronounced something like “wascan”. Originally, it meant washing or bathing a person, but it quickly also became associated with washing clothes as well.

As is common in English, the verb was also used as a noun. For example, we can still say things like “the t-shirt is in the wash”, or “I’ll do the washing when I get home.” Note the difference between “do the washing” which usually refers to clothes, and “do the washing up” which refers to cups, plates, cutlery, and so on.

One way of using the word “wash”, which became even more important during the pandemic, is to “wash your hands”. This obviously has a literal meaning, as in you should wash your hands if you don’t want to catch a disease.

But there is also a metaphorical meaning. If you “wash your hands of something” you intentionally stop being responsible for, or involved in, a project. This meaning comes from the Bible when Pontius Pilate is supposed to have washed his hands as a sign that he was no longer responsible for the life of Jesus when he was handed over to the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine.

In the late 1600s, we get the first use of “whitewash”. This means a thin coat of white paint. If you had a wall and it was getting old or there were some marks on it, and you wanted it to look new and clean, the easiest thing to do is to paint it. However, if you don’t have much money, it can be expensive to buy a lot of paint.

Your solution might be to get some cheap white paint, add a bit of water to dilute it, and then put a think layer over the wall. This is called “whitewash”. It will only serve its purpose for a short time before you have to whitewash the wall again. But in the short term, it does the job nicely, it is cheap, and it hides anything you don’t want other people to see.

And it is this ides of hiding something ugly that eventually became used as metaphor. When a government, business or other institution wants to hide something they have done you can say they are whitewashing.

For example, let’s imagine a Prime Minister has been accused of lying to parliament. I know, it is very difficult to imagine, but give it a try. Perhaps it would help to give this imaginary politician a name, like, ooh, I don’t know, Boris Jansen. For example.

Well, one thing this imaginary politician could do is ask another politician to write a report that finds the Prime Minister who we have named Boris Jansen completely innocent. In this case, opponents of this fictitious Prime Minister might accuse the report of whitewashing the whole scandal. Or, in other words, that the report hides the ugly truth that the Prime Minister was lying to parliament.

There is another use of “whitewash”, which is related to sport. If one team dominates a game and scores many goals or points, and the other team fails to score, then we can say the game was a whitewash. In other words, the ugly, poor team, has been completely hidden by the good team. In the 1980s, the term “a blackwash” became popular when the West Indies cricket team beat England 5-0. I think they used “blackwash” because the players were black and were beating a largely white England team. But this is a very specific meaning and one that I don’t want to investigate more.

Another type of “washing” is “brainwashing”. When you brainwash somebody you try to alter or control the way a person thinks. Apparently, this is a literal translation from a Chinese phrase and came into English during the Korean war in the 1950s.

For the rest of this episode, I want to focus on the idea of whitewashing meaning to hide an inconvenient truth. It is quite clear that this is a powerful metaphor. So powerful, that people have been playing with it and inventing other types of “washing”. 

First up, we had “greenwashing”. Greenwashing describes companies who do the absolute minimum in terms of helping the environment, but use that minimum to pretend that they really believe they are doing the right thing. An example of this might be an oil company using words like “low-carbon”, “climate”, “net zero”, and “transition” in advertising and reports, but still continue to produce oil that has the opposite effect. The advertising and official reports could be accused of greenwashing.

There are two examples of “pinkwashing”. The first is people pretending to care about breast cancer, for example using a pink ribbon on their website but still making products that cause cancer. A second example is very specifically aimed at the country of Israel. This criticism says that Israel claims it is a good place for gay men and women to live, when compared to neighbouring Muslim countries. And then, because of this, it means Israel is a good place to live for everyone and far better than those Muslim countries. It’s kind of ike saying “because we are nice to gay people it is obvious we are nice to everyone.”

I leave you to make your own mind up about that.

Another example is purplewashing, which is related to feminism. When a company engages in purplewashing it makes statements about how all people are welcomed and supported, regardless of their gender. But if you look more closely at the company you find that most of the management positions are occupied by men and there is a large pay gap between what the men and women receive in their salaries.

Similarly, rainbowwashing is when organisations say they are allies and supporters of the LGBT+ community, but do nothing in practical terms to make their place of work or their products supportive of that community.

The final type of “washing” I want to look at today is a bit different because it doesn’t use a colour. “Sportswashing” is when a company or a country uses sport to give it a better image in society. The most obvious examples of this are the countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Arab Emirates which have all bought football teams, host international competitions or advertise at sporting events. Critics of these countries say the only reason they are interested in sport is so that people will stop talking about their human rights abuses and actions that harm the climate, and start associating them with sport instead.

That’s about all I have for you today on the idea of “whitewashing” and all the similar metpahors. Do you have anything like this in your language? Do you use some of these English words? Do you think that these types of “washing” really exist? I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave me a message on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or on my social media. I am on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Just look for English with Stephen.

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So long, and I hope to speak to you again next week.

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