IT’S been school holidays which means I have been washing, drying and even ironing more than usual … in fact, Mount Never Pressed, the enormous basket of ironing I have reduced to nothing, threatened to overwhelm me. So, it is to the issue of laundry that I turn my attention!
There are a number of expressions that owe existence to the weekly wash: It will all come out in the wash, In the laundry, Washing one’s dirty laundry in public / airing one’s dirty linen, and
A laundry list of items. It seems the French were the source for at least one. The French proverb, “Il faut laver son linge sale en famille” or “one should wash one’s dirty linen at home” was spoken by Napoleon when he returned to France having managed to escape Elba in 1815. He had been asked about the problems that had previously beset him and the proverb was his response. It was the beginning of dismissive comments to the press. Napoleon chose not to discuss matters in public; the proverb was a perfect response!
By 1867, the expression, in a variety of forms, had made it across the channel and was in common usage in England. It was being heard as “someone’s dirty laundry” ( 1889), meaning someone’s nasty little secrets that they did not want known.
“Airing one’s dirty linen” was discussing those secrets in a place where others may overhear. Some quoted the idiom as “it’s dangerous to air one’s dirty linen” meaning they ought not discuss things in open conversation while others made reference to others “airing their dirty laundry”.
The expression “it will all come out in the wash” is much older, going back to the late 1400s. This expression grew from full- body immersion in baptism. All the sins would be forgiven when baptised. Later, the church at that time would realise there was money to be made from sin and before an immersion, would require that all sins were identified and a penance be paid appropriate to the sins that would now be washed away. Then those sins would indeed come out in the wash.
“In the laundry” was a more modern expression and came to life during the gangster era in America. At the same time the “baddies” were threatening to put people in the “cooler” ( where they could cool their heels and not be allowed to run away), before they were possibly “put on ice” in the coroner’s nonrefrigerated working area, they might also have been put in the laundry. If you were placed “in the laundry”, you were about to get a whole new history and identity and have all your past life washed away. The gangsters did it to save some members and the good guys did it to give new identities to those who were entering into witness protection.
Of course, some of those “in the laundry” were involved with “laundering dirty money” ( 1920s), meaning money raised as proceeds of crimes was put through normal businesses such as garages, shoe shops and general stores where the money would move into mainstream public spending.
Now, if you’ve got a lot to do, you might want to write a list and for some of us, that list might be long. If you were lucky and had money to spare, you might be able to send your dirty clothes out for some other person to wash, dry and iron ( pause for a blissful sigh as all of us who can’t afford this, dream on!). Just so you received all these items back, you’d write a list of every item – two socks, brown Argyle pattern; two socks, red tartan pattern; two socks, black, evening … you get the idea. So, if it’s coming out in the wash, being aired in public or is just a long list, its life began in the laundry … which reminds me, I’d best get back to it!