Monday, June 25, 2007

flannel and washcloth

Recyclist continues to let me know about bits of BrE that have confused her during her stay here. A recent one was flannel (in its longer form, face flannel), which is the BrE translation for AmE washcloth. Face flannels are so-called because they were once made from flannel fabric, but these days they're (AmE) terrycloth/(BrE) terry. If you stay in European (including UK) hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, you are less likely to be supplied with a washcloth/flannel than you would be in an American hotel (where I've never not been given a washcloth/flannel). You will, of course, be given towels. My understanding (though you can read other understandings here) is that this is because facecloths are considered too personal to share. People who use them bring their own when they stay away from home. Cotton flannel fabric (originally flannel was wool(l)en) is sometimes called flannelette--moreso (in my experience) in BrE than in AmE. So, Better Half talks about our flannelette sheets, and I talk about our flannel sheets.

It was a couple of weeks ago that Recyclist encouraged me to write about flannel, and she's asked me since if I've covered it yet. I replied that the stated mission of my blog was to cover the bits of cross-Atlantic English that everyone wouldn't already know about, and that flannel/washcloth is kind of like elevator/lift--the kind of difference that anyone with the slightest bit of cross-cultural knowledge would know. She insisted that it wasn't. I figured out later, when I discovered that Recyclist also hadn't heard of Brixton, that I just assume that any (slightly Anglophilic) American of my generation would know certain BrE words from certain songs. I must have learned flannel from Squeeze's 'Tempted':
I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face
Pyjamas*, a hairbrush, new shoes and a case
I said to my reflection
Let's get out of this place
*This site spells it pyjamas, most other music-lyric sites spell it pajamas. I don't know how Chris Difford spelled it, but it was probably with the y.

So, for those of you who didn't listen to Squeeze, I've now done flannel/washcloth. Now go and download Eastside Story to complete your education.

(Brixton I knew about from the Clash--but I've got(ten) to know it better because BH used to live there. Not as scary as the song.)

46 comments:

fanf said...

I think pyjamas/pajamas is another Br/Am difference.

Peggy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peggy said...

(Oops sorry about the double)

Now I feel stupid. I always imagined the "flannel for my face" in "Tempted" to be something like a warm flannel scarf - it didn't seem that odd in the context of getting new shoes. I suppose now you going to tell me that in BrE "shoes" actually refers to what we Americans call "bunny slippers." FWIW, I do know the difference between elevator/lift, trunk/boot, underwear/pants, and other assorted AmE/BrE differences that turn up in murder mystery novels. I guess personal hygiene just never came up.

eimear said...

I notice you call it a facecloth at one point - that's the only name I've ever heard in Ireland.

lynneguist said...

Fanf, yes it is--and that's what I was trying to imply by my statement that Difford probably used pyjamas in spite of the overwhelming presence of pajamas on the lyrics sites on the web. I should know better than to imply rather than to say!

Peggy, shoes are shoes. But--you can be forgiven for thinking that it couldn't be a washcloth that he was buying because it wouldn't have occured to you (as an American with washcloth-ful hotels, motels and B&Bs) that one needs to take a washcloth when one is leaving one's partner.

Eimear, I don't know where I've picked up facecloth--most likely in Britain--I think one does see it in department stores, where they list the sizes and prices of different towels, etc. I used it because I was getting tired of typing both flannel and washcloth every time, and figured it was a transparent enough word that people could figure it out--but perhaps I should have put it in bold with a 'BrE/IrE' marker. I may yet!

M said...

I'm originally from Western Australia (English ancestry) where I grew up with the term "flannel". My friend, who is sitting with me as I type this post, lived in the same state as a child but used the term "facewasher". She has Scottish ancestry.

For further regional differences in Oz see http://www.abc.net.au/wordmap/.

zhoen said...

I only know Brixton from Le Carre, where his Scalphunters are based - and a rather rough area at the time.

Anonymous said...

I was waiting for you to get around to use of the word flannel to mean, 'exaggerated talk; nonsense; flattery': http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19971103
(Something I've seen in writing occasionally, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone say it.)

Rob Clack said...

Fascinating blog. And I always thought pajamas was just bad spelling! Never occurred to me it was AmE.

jhm said...

I also would not have understood 'washcloth' to be anything other than one used to do the dishes, et cetera. To my mind, although the term would not come first, it sounds vaguely like a synonym for 'rag.' 'facecloth' would be my choice for the little square towels that hang next to the sink, although I'm having a hard time believing that this tendency originates from BrE and not my Grandmother's description of them (she was definitely not a BrE speaker) when I first encountered them.

strawman said...

I think there is a social class issue in the use of flannel/facecloth in BrE (but then, that probably applies to everything in BrE).

I grew up calling it a flannel, but a rather higher-class schoolfriend (Daddy was a bishop, donchaknow) was shocked by my use of this word:

"Flannel? Yeuch! That sounds disgusting! It sounds as though you wash your face with a thing made of flannel!"

Nice people use a facecloth!

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I had never heard of the washcloth/flannel issue before, and thanks for explaining the line in that great Squeeze song. I had no idea that I had no clue what he meant!

lynneguist said...

Anon--I have heard that use of flannel, but only in BrE. Thanks for raising it.

Strawman--you're probably right, but I can't find it on any of the lists I have of 'class-related' or regional vocabulary differences. Maybe it's a bit more subtle a class marker than toilet/lav, napkin/serviette, etc.

dearieme said...

My English wife says "flannel" when I (Scot) say "facecloth". I have often heard "flannel" to mean anon's 'nonsense', or, perhaps more accurately, piffle. I've often heard the verb too. But then I've spent part of my life working in universities.

Kim said...

Thanks for this post - I didn't know about flannel, and I've been a fan of that song for years. I just thought maybe I heard wrong, or something.

jack said...

I've never heard of this difference before either.

Also, I dunno if this is common, but I use "rag" and "washcloth" interchangeably.

Bingley said...

"Flannel" is one of those words I've learnt to be careful with over the years, in that non-Brits have no idea what it means. So, I use 'facecloth' as a gloss when talking with anybody I think is not likely to understand. (As I live abroad I'm the foreigner, pace George Mikes, hence the somewhat convoluted expression.)

Angie said...

Somebody from Australia mentioned "facewasher", which, on the opposite side of the country to where he/she hails from (Victoria) we used that same term...interchangeably with "flannel". My grandmother was more inclined to use the latter term, and I always thought it a little old-fashioned.

Oh, and it's always been "pyjamas" to me, as in "Bananas in Pyjamas".

Tony said...

I think that even within Australia this piece of cloth is an item of linguistic interest.

Though I now live in Victoria, I was brought up in New South Wales, and would know it as a "washer" or perhaps a "facecloth". I am aware now that many Victorians call it a "flannel".

As it is winter here now, my bed has "flannelette" sheets on it.

And I was totally unaware that "pyjamas" had any alternative spelling. As a previous correspondent pointed out, the children's TV show, Bananas in Pyjamas, is one of Australia's greatest exports (I work for the ABC - Australian Broadcasting Corporation - and BIP royalties help pay my wage).

Shefaly Yogendra said...

Both PYJAMA and PAJAMA should be ok. The word is not from the English language anyway (Pa/ Py latter pronounced 'pie' - meaning leg; Jama - garment).

Canadian said...

I, a Canadian, have flannelette sheets on my bed in the winter. But I think I would use "flannel" for shirts, pyjamas, etc.

Amy said...

Is there something here of the basic British conservatism---using the old word long after the object has transformed (ie no longer made of flannel)?

Like the BrE phrase "have a coffee," (versus AmE "have some coffee") ---used long past the point that the substance has ceased to be served in discrete, civilised 6oz cups with saucers!

Ken Broadhurst said...

In North Carolina, we used a washrag when we took a bath and a dishrag when we washed the dishes. The word 'rag' did not have a negative connotation — we also used cleaning rags.

My mother was very outdone when she found no washrag in the bathrooms in French hotels. Now I will be able to explain to her that Europeans find such articles too personal to be shared with other hotel guests, an explanation that will satisfy her curiosity, I am sure. I think the real reason the French don't put washrags in hotel bathrooms is that it is too easy for guests to steal them.

lynneguist said...

Amy--I don't really follow you. One can certainly say 'have a coffee' in AmE, and one still does 'have a coffee'. They might be in bigger receptacles without saucers, but they are still units of coffee. I don't think it has anything to do with BrE conservatism, and I don't think that BrE is a more conservative dialect than AmE (in fact, that's part of the point of this blog!). After all, it's the Americans who are still saying gotten while the British have changed it to got!

Dr. Tom Roche said...

I have never heard 'washcloth' used in New England-- always 'facecloth' here, though the former term I did hear when I lived in Western NY, hard onto the Canadian frontier near Buffalo.

lynneguist said...

Dr Tom, I don't recall hearing face cloth in my five years in New England. I think we can safely say that washcloth is the most dialect-neutral form in the US, since it's what national chains use in selling the things (JC Penney, Dillards, Bed Bath and Beyond--too time-pressed to link to their sites). The one exception I found was Macy's, which for most of its brands uses wash towel--something I've never heard anyone say. For Ralph Lauren, they're back to washcloth. I tried to check Filene's for some New England indication, but it seems they're now Macy's!

All of the UK store sites on which I found towels used face cloth: John Lewis, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, Harrods.

Sonya said...

In the Ottawa Valley, we grew up wearing flannelette nighties and I still use facecloths. I have also heard washcloth, and when we need the loo we go to the washroom.

Dr. Tom Roche said...

You never heard 'facecloth' here, eh? That surprises me, because, while growing up, I never remember ever hearing them called anything but. It is true New England's regional dialects, and especially regional words, are dying off at approximately (so it would appear) the same pace as regional institutions like Filene's, but I wonder why my family members used 'facecloth', if it is not apparently as common as I thought, and more of a Briticism? My people were Boston-Irish (from the suburbs), and my parents were the first in either family to see the inside of a college. Still, my mother still takes a 'bahth', like Judi Dench does, whereas almost all Americans outside of an arc around Boston and in Maine seem to take 'baths' (rhymes with 'bat')-- I do so myself. Am I stumbling onto something, or missing it? My mother and especially my late grandmother would be horrified to be accused of talking like/ aping the English....

lynneguist said...

In her case, she may be following the Irish, rather than the English. It's been noted elsewhere on the blog (in the comments--don't ask me where!) that New England English often has things in common with British English that are unlike the rest of the US. It is the site of relatively recent UK and Irish immigration (with a stronger link to Ireland than many other places that have a lot of Irish-surnamed people), so more (and more recent) contact with those varieties of English.

Anonymous said...

Semi-relevantly, "moreso" is not a word in any dictionary I've seen. I think it should be "more so".

Nathaniel Cornstalk said...

I'm American, and I've always used flannel to refer to the (usually plaid) flannel shirts a lot of farmers in the mid-west wear. If I'd heard "a flannel for my face" I would have been very confused.

Nathaniel Cornstalk said...

Also, I have never seen pajamas spelled with a y. Oh, and this a great blog, by the way.

Anti-nonsense said...

I'm Canadian, we always used "face-cloth" or "face-towel" in our house (I live British Columbia if that helps), washcloths are more for dishes and floors in my house!

Aviatrix said...

Also Canadian, also facecloth. "Washcloth" would be acceptible but might need clarification to be sure whether it was a dishcloth or a facecloth.

Flannel evokes pajamas. And Canadian hotels all provide facecloths, plus often a shoe rag, to discourage you from using the facecloths to clean your shoes.

mathman1 said...

I was born and raised in Detroit, Mi, by a British father and Russian mother who met in British controlled China (1930"s) and many words and phases that I use and think with are 100% British. I would first think of or call a wash cloth a flannel because I was taught that. Only recently have I realised I use many British words.

reversepilgrims said...

I was grateful yesterday that I had learned what a "flannel" was through UKtoUSwithlove and your blog. We have been in England for about 10 weeks now and when a neighbor walked my son back from playing at their house she told me that he got a bump on his head, but she put a flannel on it. If I didn't know what she was talking about, I would have thought she was pulling an old grunge t-shirt over his head!!

Kristine Keller said...

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I was taught to be pretty specific about towel-words. In the bathroom, we have face towels/washcloths (the latter probably comes from my grandma, who was raised in a few places throughout the US, including Chicago, New York, Albequerque, and Los Angeles), hand towels, and bath towels. In the kitchen, we have dish cloths.

ednpamschnelle said...

I'm an American, born & raised in Cincinnati, OH. We've always said dish cloth for what is used to wash dishes, dish towel for what is used to dry dishes, and wash cloth for what is used to wash ourselves. I work for a textile company & our Canadian customers say "facecloth" - I had never heard this term before that. I thought it was odd at first, since the cloth is used for washing the body as well as the face. Also, in recent years, we've begun to refer to some of our washcloths as "wash towels", I think its really just a marketing thing, when selling to the better hotel chains, etc., someone apparently thinks it sounds nicer. Maybe it implies that the item is larger if called a towel instead of cloth, I just think it is confusing. Also, regarding the term flannel, we sell some hospital items we call bath blankets or warming blankets, they are what they cover you with when awaiting surgery, etc., our Canadian customers refer to them as flannels or flannel sheets

David Lauri said...

Interesting that facecloths are considered too personal to share. If facecloths were truly only used on people's faces, surely no one would mind sharing them, so long as they were laundered between uses.

Bath towels are rather more obviously used to dry more than just faces, and yet they're provided, perhaps because people can't be expected to travel with towels in their luggage. I guess we're not meant to think too much about just what people are drying off with the shared bath towels.

Anonymous said...

I live in Alabama and my grandfather (88 years old) has lived here all of his life as well. He says "flannel" instead of washcloth. Whereas most of us here in the south don't even say washcloth either...we usually just call it a "rag". I think that's interesting though, how a man like my grandfather whose only exposure to Britain was in WWII says at least one word like they do.

Hana said...

I appreciate all of the comments. If I may ask... what does the UK call "flannel" cloth? For instance, here in the US, we often (particularly in winter) prefer flannel sheets, because they are both softer and warmer, than mere cotton (which is better suited to summer months). I am trying to purchase some "flannel sheets" for my daughter to take with her to University, and I have no idea what reference to use.

-Hana

David Crosbie said...

Hana

If I may ask... what does the UK call "flannel" cloth?

We call it flannel.

It makes a pair with a flannel along with:

fur ~ a fur
fleece ~ a fleece
nylon ~ a pair of nylons
oilskin ~ oilskins
denim ~ denims
corduroy ~ corduroys

David Crosbie said...

Hana

The sort of flannel used for sheets is often called flannelette.

lynneguist said...

As I say in the post: "Cotton flannel fabric (originally flannel was wool(l)en) is sometimes called flannelette--moreso (in my experience) in BrE than in AmE. So, Better Half talks about our flannelette sheets, and I talk about our flannel sheets."

But one can say 'flannel' too.

n0aaa said...

The AmE types posting hinted at but never stated my experience, having grown up in California and many other states, we always used dishrag (for the kitchen) and washrag (for the bathroom). I never heard of facecloth or flannel in this context. My wife, who grew up near Boston with a mother from Maine, always used dishcloth and washcloth. (never facecloth).

Bryn Ensomhet said...

Late comment is seven years late, but it wasn't until the last couple months reading Sherlock fanfiction that I figured out what a BrE flannel was - and yes, the first couple times I mentally pictured a small square of flannel cloth, which left me terribly confused. And it was only last year that I finally figured out pants/underwear. Which strikes me as terribly odd, since I learned most of my BrE/AmE reading Buffy fanfiction a decade ago. But somehow those words (and possibly more) never caught my attention. It's nearly always been called a washcloth (seldomly a facecloth) in my part of America.