iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast
When I think of laundry I think of that pile of stuff that gets dragged or tossed down into the basement to be put into the machine, and later the things that need to be put back in drawers and hung in closets.
But although the word first laundry came into English in 1530, it didn’t mean what I mean here until 1916.
For most of the time it didn’t mean the stuff that got washed but the action of washing and the place where you did the washing.
Going further back, in 1377 it wasn’t laundry but lavandry from Old French. In French lavé is “to wash” and that’s why we sometimes call the bathroom the lavatory.
The French word came from Latin lavandarius, also “to wash,” but that in turn came from another Latin word lavanda which were “the things to be washed,” so we’ve come full circle.
There is a striking similarity between the medieval word lavandry and the name of the flower lavender and this caused early etymologists to go digging for evidence that lavender scent was used for washing or bathing.
Hard looks at the scanty clues got them thinking instead that maybe the blue flower’s name was more related to turning blue with livid anger than to laundry the word or odiferous pile.
Tracing word histories always isn’t a clean process.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.