Today’s content is going to knock your socks off!
The ancient process of washing clothes has often transcended the laundromat and expanded across our culture through literature, politics, and even language. In this article, we’ve put together a list of popular idioms that somehow relate to laundry, either etymologically or figuratively. We hope their curious origins will pull you in like a dirty shirt!
Take someone to the cleaners
As dry cleaning establishments gained popularity in the early 20th century, this expression evolved from another idiom used a century earlier: to clean someone out, which means to take everything from them, especially their money.
This term emerged from the laundromats that were running in the 1960s, where the clothing was sorted and marked on an extensive list of clothing categories. Now, it has expanded to any long list of items, generally considered tedious or complex.
Hang out to dry
It’s very easy to connect this term with its meaning. Just picture the helplessness of a wet garment hanging in the line to dry. This phrase is believed to have appeared in the middle of the 20th century and it refers to leaving someone stranded in a hopeless or helpless situation.
Off the rack
Also known as off the peg, this phrase (often hyphenated) refers to ready-made, mass produced clothes, as opposed to tailor-made pieces. This idiom appeared in the late 19th century in Britain, and in the middle of 20th century in North America, right as mass production settled within the fashion industry and some manufacturers began to produce garments with one same fabric and pattern, designed to fit large groups of people.
Air one’s dirty linen in public
This expression refers to the public discussion of things that should remain in someone’s private life. Today’s cringe? The idiom is often attributed to Napoleon who quoted, in one of his speeches in the early 19th century, a French proverb about how dirty laundry should be washed at home. However, there’s some earlier literature referencing said proverb, like a letter that Voltaire wrote in the 18th century declaring that the king was sending him his dirty laundry to be laundered.
The proverb comes from the privilege that the affluent sectors of society used to have for keeping the dirty linen and underwear in the privacy of the home. The idiom was later shortened to “dirty laundry” and used as a noun meaning private matters that are revealed to the public causing distress or embarrassment.
Come out in the wash
This idiom means that problems will be resolved with no lasting harm, or that the truth will be revealed eventually. It alludes to the power of washing to remove stains and dirt, bringing clothes back to their original state as if nothing’s ever happened. The earliest use of this phrase dates back to the 17th century, as Miguel de Cervantes wrote “all will away in the bucking” in his popular satire Don Quixote. “Bucking” was the method to clean clothes and linen in the late medieval times.