Why Is It Called a “Washing Machine”?

Last night I had a verbal fumble regarding a common household appliance, and not for the first time.

I wanted to ask Megan if I needed to transfer the clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. But as I reached the point in the sentence where I should have said, “washing machine,” I paused. Is that the right word? Or is that the word for the machine that washes the dishes? Nope, that’s…what is that?

This has happened to me on multiple occasions. In hindsight, it’s obvious: There is a a dishwasher in our kitchen and a washing machine in our closet.

What throws me off, though, is that “washing machine” is an incredibly generic term for a device that has such a specific purpose. It isn’t there to wash just anything. It’s there for clothes. If the dishwasher cleans dishes, shouldn’t it be a clothewasher that cleans clothes? Wouldn’t that add a level of clarity?

Perhaps it’s too early to propose such a change in language, and maybe there are better terms in non-English languages. But in the future, we’re going to have machines that wash all sorts of things, and “washing machine” just isn’t going to cut it. You’ll have your dishwasher, your clothewasher, your fruitwasher, your bodywasher, your VRwasher, and so on.

The only other possibility is if the washing machine truly becomes a machine that can wash anything. If that happens, I’m fine with the name staying the same.

What do you think? What other household items are misnamed?

5 thoughts on “Why Is It Called a “Washing Machine”?”

  1. I could easily be wrong, but I believe the name stems from the historical colloquialism of dirty clothing being referred to as ‘the wash’.

    Did you do the wash?
    The washing needs done!

    Linguistic evolution is inevitable, but I believe it largely stems from a hodgepodge of laziness and increased specificity. I admit I am curious what future devices you imagine people will need to clean things, and what these future things might be that are not yet served by existing machines. There is a doctor who episode in here somewhere, I am certain.

    I would be interested in a lexicon of abandoned phrases though. Who says ‘cell’, ‘clicker’ or ‘disc player’ anymore? Heck, I bet there are kids alive now that don’t know what an mp3 player is.

    • “Did you do the wash?” You’re right! I’ve definitely said that. So at some point clothes/laundry must have become synonymous with “the wash.”

  2. It’s right up there with vacuum cleaner…an item poorly named as I know for a fact having used one for many decades, the vacuum is not any cleaner after I’m done with it.

  3. This naming scheme has always really gotten under my skin and tripped me up countless times regardless of the understandable historical context MacGhille brings up. In my life I have made the executive decision (with no real authority) that washing machine is generic and can apply to any machine that washes things, much to the chagrin of my wife, Sarah. It think it will catch on! 🙂


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