washing up and doing the dishes (and digressions on showers, baths, kettles, and coffee)

Here's a topic that we've partly done before, but it heads to the top of the to-blog-about list just because most of the heavy lifting has already been done for me.  John Wells (of Phonetic Blog fame) wrote to say:
Not sure if you've written about BrE washing up / doing the washing up = AmE washing/doing the dishes.

Who's going to do the washing up?
There was some washing up on the draining board waiting to be done.

As well as a kitchen, scullery, and larder/pantry, in the house where I grew up we also had a wash-up (room devoted to washing up). We boys had to help my father with the washing up there.

Nowadays of course we use a dishwasher (a term obviously of American origin, and still in competition in BrE with washing-up machine).

You'll have heard of the British couple dismayed to be greeted on arrival at friends' house for dinner with Would you like to wash up before we eat? (= BrE 'wash your hands')

Lastly, have you noticed how in Britain we assume that you don't need to rinse the (BrE) washing-up/(AmE) dishes in clear water, while in America you do so rinse them?
Thanks for all that, John!  By the time I was old enough to help out, my parents had a dishwasher, but I still learned how to wash dishes 'properly' from my grandmother.  She taught me that the right way to do it is to first put the kettle on,* so that after you've set the dishes in the drainer, you can pour boiling water over them in order to kill any lingering germs.  My grandmother did not have OCD.  This is just the way things were done.  I doubt many Americans would do that today, but we would run some clean water over dishes to get the soap off.  When I've seen English people not doing that, I must admit, I've been [more than] a little uneasy.**

And now for your commenting pleasure, the almost entirely non-linguistic footnoted digressions!!

*And when we say put the kettle on in AmE, we almost certainly mean putting it on the (AmE) stove/(BrE) hob.  When BrE speakers say it these days, they usually mean 'switching the kettle on', as almost no home (or office) is without an electric kettle.  It's probably the case that it's our lesser interest in tea that's kept us from having electric kettles--we have automatic coffeemakers instead.  I'm in the US at the moment, and had a moment of reali{s/z}ation about the ubiquity of coffeemakers yesterday.  I was in our local nirvana of a supermarket, looking to buy a little caffeinated instant (I drink coffee so milkified it doesn't really matter).  I was initially surprised to find LESS supermarket choice for this item in the US than in the UK.  I mean, many of the UK supermarkets I use would fit (not at the same time, of course) into the produce section of more than a few of the US supermarkets that I visit.  (Supermarkets are a major tourist destination for Better Half and me.)  Given that for any other non-nation-bound product [with the possible exception of cheese] there seems to be twice to ten times as much selection in an American supermarket as in a UK one, I had expected to be able to find a small jar of caffeinated instant coffee.  (There were some larger jars, but not many.  I saw no fair trade options.  Ended up buying a box of little (AmE) packets/(BrE) sachets, but only one brand offered those.)  And then it dawned on me: nearly everyone has a coffeemaker; almost no one has an electric kettle--of course there's not much market for instant coffee.  In the UK, in any place where people gather there will always be a kettle, ready to serve tea--and almost always a jar of instant coffee as a nod to the non-tea-drinkers.

**Which just reminds me of several encounters I've had with a few older English people who aren't terribly interested in showers, preferring baths.  I recall one in particular who declared that he couldn't see how having the water wash over you would get you really clean.  I replied, in a characteristically brash American manner, that I viewed baths as an opportunity to wallow in one's own filth.  (They're lovely for a sit and a think, but not what I would use to get clean.)  He claimed that the filth would be left in the (BrE) bath/(AmE) tub.  And I countered "No, because the soap with which you remove the filth floats, and so as you raise yourself from the tub [bath], you pass the lower half of your body through a film of soap, dead skin, and dirt, which clings to your skin until your next bath rearranges it." He had no answer to this.  I like to think that he went home and took a shower.  Of course, the relative paucity of decent water pressure in British showers may be at the root of any British-held beliefs that showers are insufficient cleaners.  The combination of poor water pressure and (in some places, like where I live) very hard water does indeed slow down the removal of filth.


  1. I emigrated from the UK to the USA in search of a shower with acceptable temperature and pressure.

    (OK that's a slight exaggeration, but my latest trip back to Blighty did confirm all my worst memories... Didn't help that it was in the middle of winter!)

  2. Off to Japan with both of you, where you sponge yourself clean with the aid of a little hand-held shower and THEN get in the bath.

  3. A particularly thought-provoking post.

    Some of the BrE/AmE alternatives mentioned herein are interchangeable for me, e.g. "doing the washing up" vs "washing the dishes". As for the word "satchet", I think of it as jargon of the consumer industry, rather than a word that normal people would use.

    I have a whole blog post on my preferred techniques for washing dishes. I also have a blog post in which I mention my methodical experiment to determine the ideal amount of milk to have with a mug of instant coffee. (The answer is 4/3 tsp of milk to 3/4 tsp of instant coffee, at least for the brand I prefer.)

    The difference in meaning for "putting the kettle on" is interesting. I did not know that electric kettles were rare in America.

    The digression about older British people and baths agrees with personal experience. I understand that when we began our four years in Scotland (1979-1983), all our neighbours thought my parents were crazy for wanting a shower in place of a bath. I also understand that times have changed.

  4. As an American, I feel the exact same way about baths-- I always turn on the shower to rinse myself off after a bath! And I can't imagine not rinsing the dishes after washing them... not for germ reasons, but because the residual soap seems like it would make future food served on those dishes taste/smell funky.

  5. Shannon - only if you use far too much detergent. (I'm getting mental images of a really powerful American detergent manufacturers' lobby...)

  6. Even if you only use a little detergent, there will be detergent on your dishes if you don't rinse them. It might not make your food taste bad if it's only a little--but do you really want to be eating it?

  7. To find out whether it's true that there will be a trace of detergent on your dishes if you don't rinse them would require very sensitive scientific instruments. I think that worrying about it is like arguing that one shouldn't let the dishes drain because even if they're only sitting around for a few hours, they'll accumulate small quantities of dust. (This is not intended as hyperbole).

  8. Add me (raised USA, living UK) to the list of dish rinsers and soap taste fearers. I'm a little relieved to read that it's not only my girlfriend (UK) who doesn't rinse. The purchase of a dishwasher (never heard anyone say washing-up machine!) has made it a non-issue, though.

  9. Oh, British plumbing... unbelievable isn't it. You'd really think that after thirty seven years of being in "Europe" the English plumbers might have learned a thing or two from their continental colleagues...

  10. Born and raised in the UK, and visited the US only once, but acquired the habit of rinsing dishes when my parents first had a double sink. As for coffee, though, I was amazed at the choice available in a US supermarket — and, as you say, the fact that none of it was Fairtrade...

  11. BrE washing-up machine is, in my experience, very rare, and perhaps only used ironically, as is washer-upper. BrE washing has a variety of uses. It can mean the process of cleaning clothes with water, as well as the clothes themselves both before and after that process. If you use laundry to mean the clothes, it feels like you're being flashy and American and, anyway, to older BrE-speakers, a laundry (AmE pronunciation larndry) is a place. If you were posh, it was a room in your house; if unposh, a small factory where the middle-classes sent their dirty shirts and collars.

    Coffeemaker is theoretically BrE but not really. While dishwashers have been warmly welcomed to Britain (yesterday a guy on the television told you how to cook a trout in one), coffeemakers are still regarded with suspicion. For a start, BrE-speakers couldn't agree on what one was. Is it one of those giant black hourglasses which you used nervously to put on the gas-cooker so that it would explode because you left a few drops of cold water on the outside? Is it one of those small, hexagonal, rusty jugs you see hanging from the ceiling of French kitchens where it's unclear which bit you put the coffee in and which the water and which, after half hour of gurgling, produce a small, dirty cup of insomnia-provoking treacle? Is it one of those things where you have to buy filter-papers like you used for chemistry at school and which, as the water runs out, makes a noise like someone being sick? Maybe it's one of those big, shiny metal things (with disturbing names like Fuccia or Buggia) which sit on the counter of cafés looking like the pipe-organ in a Sicilian parish church and hissing at you menacingly. Or perhaps they're those things you get in offices with, for some reason, two metal jugs, one of them stone-cold and the other containing half an inch of silt at the bottom. Oh, and there are those ones which consist of a large, lipped beaker someone nicked from the same school chemistry-lesson and a kind of piston made of narrow-gauge chicken-wire which you can never get the used grounds out of. I think you put the powder in the bottom bit and the water in the top or maybe it's the other way round. After doing that, you stand there lamely wondering if it's going to do anything. At a randomly-predetermined moment, you gingerly press down the piston trying to look like you know why this has to be done. Once the plunger's down, you can never lift it up again because of Avogadro's law of thermocoupling or something. Imprisoned below the mesh-disc is the actual coffee, dry as a bone. Above it floats a pale brown plasma looking like the contents of a puddle in the park. If you're doing this alone in the kitchen and your dinner-guests are still a bit squiffy from Marks and Spencer's chardonnay, quietly close the kitchen-door, put the kettle on and make them some proper coffee from out of a jar. Any spare hot water can be used for rinsing the washing up which was almost dry before you did that, you idiot, and is now wet again so you have to dry it up with a tea-towel which has also been used to wipe the dog's paws.

  12. "It might not make your food taste bad if it's only a little--but do you really want to be eating it?"

    Honestly, the idea of ingesting some imperceptible trace quantity of detergent doesn't bother me at all. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be allowed to sell it if it was poisonous.

  13. I'm a Brit and always rinse but other half doesn't. I've done the thing where I've shown him the rinse water and offered to let him taste it, but he declined.

  14. "Washing-up machine"? [citation needed], as the kids these days put it. I've lived my whole life in the UK (admittedly with an American mother) and never once heard that phrase.

    A 'washing machine' is the thing you put your washing (i.e. laundry) in, and I have hear people with 'washing up' on the brain accidentally refer to the dishwasher as a washing machine, however - but they usually correct themselves.

  15. Detergent is poisonous in large enough quantities, but I still don't rinse except for glasses. I remember staying in a house with a Norwegian girl who on her first night in a UK home burst out 'so it's true, the British don't rinse their dishes.' I hadn't realised we were famous for it & I now do it as a badge of pride in my nationality. Truly, we are the dirty man of Europe.

    On the other hand, we're probably greener - Germans wash up by hand so thoroughly that it's more environmentally efficient to put them in the machine; sadly if you wash your dishes to UK standards this is not the case so there's no excuse.

    Does anyone else find the use of the word 'dish' to cover everything that might be washed up a bit strange? I always think of the dishes as only covering the thing that ran away with the spoon - not also the pots and pans, cutlery, cups, glasses etc.

  16. Fascinating about what a dish is. All the stuff you wash up is the dishes. You don't say you'll wash the dishes and the cutlery. However, dishes on their own are a very limited set of things and I doubt that I own one. Coming closest is what you have cereal out of, but that's a bowl. In the east midlands of England you wash the pots, which is by no means restricted to earthenware things you put plants in so they die. German abwaschen means to wash up and sounds a lot like it, though the ab means down. And then there was the terrible business of the person who thought that mugs were a type of cup. Which brings me to my latest medley of those wavy, coloured words which you have to type-in before posting a comment. Far from being random strings, they are genuine lexemes, usually non-English and rich in connotation, if not actual meaning.

    Messingl - German, small town in Bavaria renowned for practical joking; avoid this Thursday
    restial - church-calendar, midweek feast-day on which no work is done
    cogami - Japanese, art of folding raw fish into interesting shapes
    pecheeki - Belgian, rude statue in Brussels street
    Fortha - Irish, national army
    freganti - Italian, illicit pleasures
    manogra - pharmaceuticals, male aphrodisiac
    Volemite - Australian, spread made from crushed rodents
    ohions - American, midwestern vegetables
    woksie - Chinese, music made with frying-pans

  17. This American has two questions about the use of 'washing up:'

    i) What do the help wanted ads for dishwashers say in the UK?

    ii) I personally am pretty much inured to the use of 'washing up,' but I still balk at 'washing up liquid' for 'dish soap/detergent.' It just seems to describe dish water to me. I suppose some Americans use the term 'laundry powder,' but I've thought that lacking as well.

  18. What do the help wanted ads for dishwashers say in the UK?

    Probably 'washer-up'; possibly 'pot-washer' (the actual dishes would go in the dishwasher, i.e. the machine); the most common is probably 'kitchen porter'.

  19. Merriam-Webster's Visual Dictionary is a useful resource but far more obviously American than its (>US)regular/(>UK)ordinary dictionary. For "kettle" it shows only one type, the electric separate-base type, though the cord is not pictured. I venture to suggest the jug kettle is far more common hereabouts.

    "Kettle" is in the "miscellaneous" category next to "ice cream freezer", whereas "coffee makers" have a category of their own, which I list in order of familiarity:
    plunger (BrE also cafetiere),
    automatic drip coffee maker,
    espresso machine,
    espresso coffee maker,
    Neapolitan coffee maker,
    vacuum coffee maker.
    I couldn't find "instant coffee" at all.

    Perhaps the rinsing debate is related to the drying debate. I regard rinsing as compulsory but drying by tea-towel/dishcloth as necessary only for silver and non-stainless steel. Otherwise just leave em on the draining rack: (a) less effort, (b) less washing of teatowels, and (c) more hygienic if you don't change teatowels often (if you do change them often, double the points for (b) instead).

  20. My family used "washing-up machine" when I grew up in the UK (born mid-1970s). And I always rinsed.

    @Paul Danon:
    laundry (AmE pronunciation larndry)

    I've never heard an American (or anyone, for that matter) pronounce an "R" in the first syllable

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. AM/E,
    Kettle. I have an electric kettle because I drink tea, but I'm the only person I know with one. Many of my friends don't have a kettle of any sort, and a small saucepan must be found to boil water for the tea bag I bring with me.

    No dish rinsing? Ugh. I want to culture those dishes and the bacterial film growing on them that eats soaps. Just like a bath, one is only as clean as the water just gotten out of.

    Dishes. Everything I eat with I consider dishes, cups, bowls, forks, glasses. Doing the dishes means washing, rinsing, putting away, (but I have a dishwasher.) The Washer is for clothes, Do the laundry by putting clothes in the washer, then the dryer.

  23. At home (UK Midlands) we always used to say "wash the pots". "Dishes" sounds posh in comparison.

  24. Washing up:
    I'm a 50-something Brit and I was always taught to rinse the plates after washing, BUT at some point during the late 70s, an advertisement appeared on television for the brand of washing-up liquid we used, and it said that with its new formula, there was no longer any need to rinse. So from that point on, I stopped rinsing. I'll bet that explains why a lot of Brits don't do it any more.

    We didn't have a bathroom until I was 6, and when we did we were still only able to have a bath once a week because of the high cost of heating the water, so we stood at a filled washbasin with soap and flannel every day. I had my first shower when I was seventeen, when a friend moved into a house with a shower and I had to try it out. I didn't live in a home with a shower until I moved to America in 1993. Now the first thing I do when I go back to the UK is have a nice long, deep, hot bath.

  25. The American obsession with rinsing dishes has always seemed peculiar/OCD to me. If you can't see, taste or feel the effects of washing-up residue does is it really matter that it's there?

  26. @Christopher: The women who used to lick their brushes while painting the radium dials on clocks didn't feel any immediate effects of that either... :)

  27. Of course, in Denmark (rampant generalisation) we don't necessarily rinse, but we wipe the stuff dry with what I can only translate as a teatowel before putting it away.

  28. Sadly, this blog seems to be turning from an interesting and unbiased discussion of the way two sister or cousin languages or dialects have diverged, recombined, and interacted, into a parade of supposed American superiority, based more on prejudice than evidence. As another 50-something Englishman, I have never heard of the idea of not rinsing dishes after washing up (except when recommended to me by an eccentric German friend in the 80s). And yes, of course one showers the soap scum off at the end of the bath. Doesn't everyone?

    But this is completely irrelevant to the much more interesting discussions of language differences, the most fascinating of which of course are not the banal and obvious lexical differences but those of syntax and semantics.

  29. If you have no kettle at all, how do you fill a hot water bottle? (Or boiling water for any non-culinary purpose, really.)

  30. Now retired in my 70s, I've had to return to room-mating, and am much more disturbed by others' failure to prerinse than to postrinse. In the hotel industry one first scrapes into a bin, then uses a hydroblasting dangling hose before putting crockery on the conveyor-belt,(if one has a machine), or in the dishwater.

    My present temp room-mate claims to work as a dishwasher in a uni cafeteria, but she invariably dumps her unrinsed dishes in my carefully prepared dishwater, turning it to a scummy sticky mess in a matter of minutes. I have had to set up a separate dishbowl, which I can make last over a week.

    Failure to prerinse in a professional environment is a waste of Teepol. In the home, it's just yucky.

    (I no longer use original Teepol, but Dawn dishwash liquid plus a dash of bleach.)

    For me, postrinsing is a given, though I don't know how necessary it is. I guess I must be tending toward OCD, and happily so. It's not a matter of nationality, but of personality.

    On pronunciation, I have noticed that washing is pronounced warshing in Alabama.

    Nothing against the South, mind you. In some northern climes, news is 'nooze', and huge is 'yooge'.

    (I was originally Brit, lived in south and central Fla for many years, and last year suddenly went from Fla to Wisc to West Mass, and none of those variations exist in any of these locations.)

  31. Most grateful to anonymous above for, apparently, identifying yet more of those randomly-generated Blogspot authenticating passwords, namely:

    room-mating - English, [censored]
    Prerinse - Danish, suburb on railway-line just before Københavns Hovedbanegård
    Postrinse - Danish, suburb on railway-line just after Københavns Hovedbanegård
    Hydroblasting Dangling Hose - Californian, 1960s Berkeley campus rock-group
    Teepol - Polish, state-owned beverage-distribution monopoly
    Dawn Dishwash - Californian, lead singer with Hydroblasting Dangling Hose, q.v.
    postrinsing - Chinese, Confucian attainment of eternal contentment through colonic hydrotherapy

    In his use of "warshing" I note that anonymous, like me, employs the international fanatic alphabet (c.f. Harmony Grits (TM))

  32. @ vp: in the international fanatic alphabet (conventionally indicated with backslashes), non-post-contoid, post-vocalic, pre-contoid (help!) R is silent as in \warshing\, \harmony grits\, \larndry\, \lartay\ (for Italian latte) and \obarmar\.

    @ mollymooly: re your "automatic drip coffee maker", I mean, nuff said

  33. @Graham Asher: Non-linguistic differences are a long-standing source of digression and ample commenting here too...but I ask you to try to take them in the way that they are meant, as interesting (often self-deprecating) and the fodder of as much cross-cultural misunderstanding as is brought about in the language. Please note that the non-dish-rinsing issue was raised by an Englishman, not an American. Since the last two posts were about prepositions, I think your case is a bit overstated.

    @Ruth: Americans generally don't use hot water bottles. In fact, I've never known anyone to have one, though I have seen novelty ones in shops. I grew up with electric heating pads and more recently one can get bean-filled things that you heat in the microwave--both of these are used for aches and pains. The non-medicinal British use of a hot water bottle--to warm up the foot of a bed (or generally just to snuggle up with and keep warm)--is just something I've never seen done in the US. There are the few who have electric blankets (as there are in the UK), but I've always just gone to bed with cold feet. I'm sure I'd be more comfy if I'd warm up the bed first, but it just seems like too much bother at the end of the day. And that's what husbands are for.

  34. "Lastly, have you noticed how in Britain we assume that you don't need to rinse the (BrE) washing-up/(AmE) dishes in clear water, while in America you do so rinse them?"

    Huh. This is news to me, though I suppose I learned how to wash (and rinse) dishes from my parents. On the other hand, I'm definitely a bath-over-shower person. You can't read in the shower.

    As for electric kettles, the lack of them in the US always puzzled me. I was told that at least part of the reason is the voltage difference - supposedly they take longer to boil water in the US, so you might as well use the hob. No idea if that's actually true.

  35. The lack of kettles is also a problem in other parts of Europe. We have been on many self-catering holidays in other European countries where the only way to make tea or instant coffee is to use a pan of water or use the coffee maker as a hot water generator. They also tend not to have grills or toasters, but that's another story.

    As for showers, we built a house (UK) with en suite bathrooms, and installed a bath rather than a shower in the bathroom designated for my mother (but it does have a little shower nozzle thingy that retracts into the bath surround, for people who want to rinse).

  36. I'm so glad someone else finds supermarkets irresistible when abroad - I do, too; it's such fun seeing what is the same and what is different. Tesco's in Poland was the most surreal, I think....

    I'm given to understand electric kettles are not in use in the USA as with the weaker electricity there, they would take too long to boil. This may, however, be an urban myth.

    As for washing-up, surely one rinses the plates first, not afterwards? They are, after all, wiped dry after washing, but rinsing first means that the bowl of washing-up water lasts longer.

    I have a minor, related query. I know in America washing-up liquid is called dishwasher liquid, and washing powder is called laundry detergent, but what do you call those tablets that go in the washing-up machine, which are dishwasher tablets here? If it's the same, isn't that rather confusing?

    1. Voltage = Potential to do work.
      Current = Amount of electricity.

      Being in the states, I can vouch for the kettle taking longer to boil with 110v than with 220v. The same goes for point of use flash water heaters. We use cisterns, or water tanks for hot water and call them, ironically enough, HOT water heaters. They're water heaters, folks. Why heat hot water?

  37. electric kettles are available in the US now - we have one at home and one at the University. They seem to take a little longer to boil, but this isn't very noticeable. You can get them in Bed, Bath and Beyond, and even Walmart in our small city (c.100k population), What is more annoying than baths or unrinsed dishes to me (ex-pat UK) is preparing tea (restaurants, friends) by providing a cup of luke-warm water into which you're expected to put your teabag (separately wrapped in its own paper sachet to maximize trash/rubbish production for landfill sites).

    Which leads me to speculate how the family next door (just two adults like us) could produce two bins-worth or trash twice a week, when we can hardly fill a half a single one and one recycling one once a week (no, they chose not to use an optional recycling scheme)....

    Martin Ball, Lafayette Louisiana

  38. @Mrs Redboots: The liquid that one uses to wash dishes by hand is called 'dish detergent' or 'dish soap'. The Palmolive bottle next to my parents' sink says 'dish liquid'. The stuff you put in the dishwasher would be 'dishwasher detergent/tablets/etc.'. So, '-washer' only for the machine materials.

  39. One thing about the rinsing of dishes...I always rinsed them not only to get the soap off, but to also get any vestige of that gross water that I just washed them in off.

    After all, even with soap, once you put a dirty dish (covered with gravy, or mashed potatoes, or egg etc) into clean water...that water is now dirty. So you use the soapy water to get rid of the gunk, then the rinse water to get rid of whatever is left.

    It's the same thing with a bath...

    Maybe it is a cultural difference in regards to the water itself...(possibly similar to the soft cookie/hard cookie debate theory that soft cookies are ones that have gone bad in the UK, but the opposite is true in the US)

  40. For people who grew up with dishwashers (the machines), I learned the hard way to make sure that people understand the difference between "dishwasher detergent" (which may be loose powder, liquid or small compressed squares/rectangles) and "dish detergent" (also dish soap, dish washING detergent or a variety of other terms). My husband once put dish detergent in the dishwasher. There were many, many bubbles, but the floor was extremely clean once we finished removing the bubbles.

    Because of the sticky scum of dish detergent left on the floor after the above incident (before the floor was rinsed), I would NEVER not rinse hand-washed dishes. It makes me shudder just to think of it! I'm sure that the tea towels do a sufficient job of removing said residue, but still - ew.

  41. @bill But that's the whole point - you rinse all the gravy/mashed potatoes off the plate FIRST before you put it into the hot soapy water! That way the gunk goes down the sink, not into the water.

    As for showers, they have only really been common here for the past 20 years or so. But when I first went to the US on a visit I found them very difficult to use there as they were attached to the ceiling - how are you supposed to wash yourself underneath if you can't lift the hose down and tilt it to the required angle? French showers are often attached, too, but at least they tend to have bidets, which solves that particular problem.

    As for baths, be thankful you didn't grow up in the era when you had to share one as there wasn't enough hot water for siblings to have one each!

  42. I (BrE) have never heard of the term washing-up machine either.

    I had no idea of the lack of kettles in the US until I went to stay with some American students here in France, and was gobsmacked when they made me a cup of tea by boiling water on the hob. A kettle was the first thing I bought upon moving into my little studio flat and I just could not understand how they coped without one. On the other hand, I am extremely mistrustful of coffee machines and have never once, in the seven months I've lived here, touched the one that came with my flat. It doesn't help that the French refer to very weak or disgusting coffee as 'café anglaise'!

    I teach English to French sixth-form students, and I remember showing them a picture of a busy kitchen and asking them to point out all the safety hazards. They were most confused when I gave them the sentence, "There is washing-up in the sink" because they'd never heard of it being used as a noun before. But that's what I've always referred to it as, never 'the dishes' You wash up the washing-up.

  43. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't be allowed to sell it if it was poisonous.

    Ahh...that's the difference. We in the US don't believe in government regulation, so they are allowed to sell poisonous things, at least until enough people die to prod our legislators into action.

  44. My mother is the most fussy person about hygiene you could imagine and she doesn't rinse things that have been in the dishwasher. We're English of course!

  45. Laura in Cambridge29 March, 2010 20:11

    wow, these things - the soapy dishes left to drip-dry, and the preference for baths - describe my in-laws exactly!! I had no idea they were that common. It makes so much more sense now.

    I do dread the week without a shower each time we drive over...but the worst part is that the bath has two taps, one cold and one hot, so the only possible way to wash my hair is to swish it around in the dirty water, and then use a bowl or something to catch a temperate mix of water from the two taps, and dump it over my head. Is this common? How do other people wash their hair in baths? Please help!

  46. @Andy:

    I don't think anyone (else) is talking about rinsing dishes that have been washed _in the dishwasher_. Dishwashers usually have their own internal rinse cycle after they've finished cleaning. Hence no need for any additional manual rinsing.

    The discussion (at least as I understand it) is about rinsing dishes that have been hand-washed in the sink using liquid.

  47. @Laura in Cambridge:

    Maybe stay in a hotel next visit?

  48. Wow, I'm American and I own an electric kettle AND three hot water bottles. I didn't know that was odd. I like tea, and after my boys burnt the bottoms out of four stove-top whistle kettles, I went for the option least likely to burn my house down. And hot water bottles rock when you've got high winds and temps of 5 below.

    I do think the kettles in Ireland, at least, heat the water faster, but that could be relativity; I'm on vacation when I'm there, so there's no commuter rush.

    Coffee makers in the States are mostly automatic drips, although your foodies will have the espresso machines or on occasion the French press. I keep my guilty pleasure of a percolator in the cupboard near the laundry room, and pull it out for camping. So I'll know how to make coffee when the zombies come.

  49. I'm given to understand electric kettles are not in use in the USA as with the weaker electricity there, they would take too long to boil. This may, however, be an urban myth.

    In Saudi we have both 220v and 110v. There is no difference in time taken to boil a kettle. Unless of course you're using a 220v kettle in a 110v socket, in which case it will take four times as long.

  50. @Laura. Do as I do when visiting my parents - take one of those hoses designed for the purpose that fit on the bathroom taps to make an tmpromptu shower. They can be bought on any branch of Boots or Superdrug! Or fill a bucket with warm water and use your bath-sponge to deliver a shower-like deluge!

  51. The late British humourist Miles Kington would every so often return to exactly this subject in his writings, commenting with incredulity on the national inclination to not rinse after washing. Sadly I can't find any examples on line, but his work is well worth seeking out.

    As for hair-washing without a shower, well having reached the age of 17 before we got a shower I grew up with the normal way of washing my hair being bent over hte bathroom sink with a mug or plastic beaker. This was filled from the taps as often as needed to get the hair wet, then apply shampoo and wash, then back to the mug to wash it off. I don't remember ever washing my hair in the bath. By now my hair to head ratio is low enough for it to be a fairly minor job however I wash it...

  52. Hmmm....I grew up in California, and we didn't have a shower, either. I did wash my hair in the bathtub occasionally (btw, I wouldn't usually say "in the bath"), rinsing it under the faucet.

    I did grow up doing dishes by hand, and I consider a dishpan to be an essential part of that process. First, being plastic, it doesn't break the dishes, as the porcelain of the sink would. Second, it provides a rinsing area to the side. So you put your dishes in the pan with soapy water to soak, then take them out, wash them and rinse them on the side, before putting them in the dishrack on the counter.

    I think the simple reason that teakettles are rare in the US is that Americans don't drink much tea. I do, so I keep a kettle on the stove at home, and an electric one at the office. 110v works just fine...it's plenty fast.

  53. I've just done a quick google, and US electric kettles are typically 1 or 1.5kw, whereas British kettles seem to be more in the region of 2.4 - 3kw. So a US kettle would indeed take significantly longer to boil. The reason behind the difference in power ratings is the voltage: to deliver the kind of power needed for a UK kettle at US voltages you'd need a hefty current, and most domestic wiring would not be up to that.
    I believe other domestic appliances have similar lower power ratings in the US - I've not checked this, but I'm convinced that irons are cooler and toasters take longer to toast bread.

    With regard to washing oneself: am I right in thinking that the practice of using a towel only once before putting it in the laundry is more of a US custom than a UK one? I was horrified when I first heard of it - it seemed so wasteful. But then I'm a dirty Brit, and so long as I smell better after a shower than before I'm happy. I don't rinse my dishes either - I'm quite sure my neighbo(u)rs here in the US would be horrified at my hygiene practices if only they knew...

  54. An aside on the kettle topic: I've been reading this book and my favo(u)rite chapter so far is the one in which the author translates the wattage/horsepower into how many slaves on treadmills you'd need to power something. To power your fridge, you need one slave working all day. To boil your kettle for a cup of tea, you need 40 slaves. This is why a popular conservation message in the UK is to only boil as much water as one needs for a (BrE) cuppa, rather than a full kettle.

    @the_sybil: I don't know anyone who only uses a towel once before laundering it, but I do suspect that the turnaround is faster in American bathrooms than in British ones. Members of my in-law family have opinions on which other members let it go too long. My American family would always make sure that (a) there were fresh handtowels whenever guests come over, and (b) everyone knows whose towel is whose. This always confuses Better Half, since all the towels are the same colo(u)r. (And always fresh sheets whenever a new person is sleeping in a bed, even if the last guests only stayed one night.) My British in-law family doesn't incur as much laundry, but in this case we're only comparing two families, so (AmE) your mileage may vary.

  55. Surely the custom of fresh sheets for guests (or at the very, very least a fresh bottom sheet and top pillow-case) is universal?

    My American sister-in-law threw me some years ago now by expecting us to provide face-flannels as well as towels when they came to stay; as far as I am concerned, one's face-flannel is as personal as one's toothbrush and not something to be shared with other guests, no matter how often it is washed.

    Do US hotels not follow the custom, now universal in European ones, of suggesting that you keep your towels/sheets to live to fight another day if you're staying more than one night? It doesn't always happen, even if you do request it, but the principle is there! Domestically, I should hate clean towels every day as, quite apart from the environmental problems caused by running the washing-machine so often, clean towels are so harsh and scratchy compared with used ones!

  56. Lynne -- have you already blogged about clothes washing and drying? (It's not tagged "housework" if you did.) I'll bet the differences are at least as stark as with dish washing, if not more so.

  57. @Mrs Redboots

    "Do US hotels not follow the custom, now universal in European ones, of suggesting that you keep your towels/sheets to live to fight another day if you're staying more than one night?"

    In most of the business hotels I stay in, it's common now to have a card on the nightstand asking that you place it in a certain way for the sheets to be kept or changed. There's often a note in the bathroom stating that towels on the floor will be changed and those hung on the rack will not.

  58. Re sheets, one never knows how much is just one's in-laws and how much is the entire culture.

    We've discussed the face flannel/washcloth issue back here.

    I think the only time clothes washing has come up has been a quick reference to (BrE) 'non-biological' washing powder back here. But perhaps some day I'll say more about it...most of the differences I can think of are non-linguistic, though.

  59. Just saw an AmE Facebook poster write Gandhi as Gahndi, suggesting the correct AmE IFA pronunciation of \garndi\.

  60. We called them "washing-up machines" back in the days when they were unusual in British homes.

    My late aunt was obsessive about rinsing handwashed dishes; conversely, friends of mine happily stand plates to drain with thick lather still clinging to them.

    I still wash my hair leaning over the washbasin. It's so thick that I wouldn't want to cope with it wet while the rest of me was wet too. Also I dislike showers, especially as I find it difficult to persuade electric ones to stay at a comfortable temperature.

    Kate (Derby. UK)

  61. My French-Canadian husband and his parents do not rinse hand-washed dishes, which I find disgusting (who wants dish soap residue on the dishes you eat from??) and therefore insist on being in charge of washing the dishes. I figured it was because they had only one sink whereas I grew up always with a double sink: one to wash and one to rinse.

  62. @Kate: 'Electric shower' is a term that most Americans won't understand at all!

  63. This rings many bells with me! Did you hear that Starbucks recently came out with a line of instant coffee in the U.S. (it's a kind of concentrated gloopy liquid in a sachet)? I believe they just reinvented the wheel. Don't know if it's been successful, but my (US) wife likes it for cooking.

    At least you can buy "British Blend" Tetley's tea in US supermarkets now, even if finding an electric kettle remains a challenge.

    As for the number of slaves it takes to boil water, the other good reason for only filling the kettle with the water you need is that it drastically reduces the time-to-tea-drinking, which is often critical for me.

    (UK-born; US-resident)

  64. @Paul Dannon: I've spent my entire life in New York, and I can assure you, at least over here, Gandhi's name is pronounced /gandi/ with the "a" sounding like the first syllable in the word "father." I've never heard anyone pronounce it "garndi."

    @Nigel (and anyone having trouble finding an electric kettle in the US): Target has a lot of good electric kettles, and I'm sure Walmart does, too. In my experience, they're usually kept in the same aisle as the coffee makers.

  65. @Paul Dannon:
    Yes, Gandhi is generally pronounced with the SPA vowel in the US. Incidentally, that is pretty close to the native Gujurati/Hindi pronunciation -- much closer than the typical southern English TRAP vowel.

    I think that Paul Dannon likes to amuse himself by using a kind of pronunciation respelling based on a non-rhotic dialect.

  66. For those who don't understand "electric shower", then, it's one that heats the water with its own internal element rather than using the domestic hot water system.

    Kate (UK)

  67. In my AmE experience, "doing the dishes" is the most commonly used idiom (more common than "washing the dishes") and refers to everything that needs washing, whether it was used on the table - plates, glasses, cutlery - or in meal preparation. But dishes only has that broad meaning in that context; it's synecdoche, specific to that idiom. We're about to move, and if I said to my husband "please pack up the dishes," he would wrap up the plates and bowls and nothing else.

    I, too, have never heard anyone in the US add an 'r' to the first syllable of laundry.

  68. The only person I've ever heard refer to a "washing up machine" was my grandmother 40 years ago, when they were a great rarity in England.

  69. I've been reading and enjoying your blog for a while but previous commenters seem to have missed what I think is the main reason I think of baths as a more thorough form of washing.

    When you have washing-up that needs heavy-duty cleaning, you leave it to soak. I think the same principle seems to be in play when it comes to baths - soaking in a bath is going to get you cleaner than just standing under a spray of water.

  70. But you rinse the things after you soak them, don't you?

    I soak things if (a) they are impregnated with dirt, (b) they are encrusted. (a) doesn't apply to people, since we're fairly waterproof, and I don't let myself get as bad as (b) before needing a bath or shower!

  71. Re: soaking, yes, you'd normally wash them with the rest of the washing up, or otherwise wash them off afterwards.

    I'm not sure it's a logical thing, though, more a psychological one - just the basic idea at the back of the mind that soaking things gets them cleaner. Since custom and practice are often more on how we feel about something than the logical facts of the situation, I suspect that may be part of what is behind the preference.

  72. Is it true that the word kettle is dis-preferred in the US in favor of teapot (or just pot if it's clear from context) whereas in the UK kettle is used exclusively?

    I live in the US, but am originally from Russia. I don't talk about pots/kettles enough to determine the truth of the statement. I do know that in Russia I learned the saying "a watched kettle never boils" whereas I've only heard/seen it with "pot" here. When I talk with my family we use the Russian word even while speaking English (we do that a lot)

    As an aside, I own an electric kettle and so do my parents. Not sure what it was called on the packaging. I didn't personally buy it, but searching through Google Shopping "Electric Kettle" is much more common than "Electric Teapot" and the latter seem to be antique-style things. We also sometimes use the tall metal coffeemaker thing for hot water (never for coffee) if we need a lot over a longer period of time. We call it a samovar. We only drink instant coffee (except my mother who grinds her own beans bought from Starbucks) and a lot of tea.

  73. Boris: A teapot is not a kettle at all. A kettle (or teakettle) is something you boil water in, whether electric or not. As discussed above, many American households do not have them, since we have electric coffeemakers or sometimes stove-top "coffee pots".

    The word "pot" has two distinct meanings. One is a relatively deep cooking utensil that can take heat. Think of something you might make soup in. In this sense, a kettle is a type of pot.

    But the word "pot" can also refer to a container made of ceramic (pottery) that may not be safe to put directly on the heat.

    A teapot (on both sides of the Atlantic, so far as I know) is a ceramic (sometimes glass) container for steeping your tea. Not the thing you heat the water in. Many teapots will break if you put them on a hot stove.

    Someone who puts a pot of water on to heat may be referring to a kettle, but is more likely to be using whatever cooking pot he has that will serve. This is what happens when a coffee-drinker has tea-drinking guests. Either way, it's not a teapot.

  74. Coming from Serbia, I must say that I find the idea of not rinsing the dishes unusual and somewhat unsettling. Though when I visited some English cousins of mine in London, they seemed to use the same dish-washing procedure I was used to.

  75. Wow, how is it I never knew this after 19 years in the US? According to Wikipedia, a kettle can also be called a pot, but a teapot is something else. Haven't used one of those since back in Russia (tea bags were considered a second class item there). Further muddying things, a teapot is a type of kettle in Russian. Maybe that's where the confusion is coming from.

  76. @Mrs Redboots, freshly laundered towels are not harsh and scratchy if they have been dried in an electric clothes dryer. It's the ones that are line-dried that are scratchy the first time you use them.

    When I was growing up in North Carolina (1950s), we had a bathtub, but no shower. And we threw the towels into the clothes hamper to be washed after using them just one time. However, we didn't get a bath every day, the way we get a daily shower now.

  77. Ah, a thread in which not-entirely-linguistic cultural comparisons are totally kosher--what a treat!

    Anyway, my own insignificant data-points as a US resident:

    We do own an electric kettle, which was purchased maybe 2 years ago, and although we drink a lot of tea in my house, the kettle hasn't seen the outside of the cupboard in almost as much time. When I make my morning cup, I just fill a mug with water, toss it in the (ordinary cooking) pot which lives on the stove for making hot water alone, heat the water sufficiently, and pour it into an amazing contraption with a mesh and pressure plate at the bottom for steeping and straining loose-leaf tea. On the other hand, if I want coffee I microwave a mug of water and add instant coffee crystals (I think that's probably sacrilege, but we're not big fans of the bean). We stopped using the electric kettle because we couldn't see what was going on inside--I know, it's just heating water!--and someone may have accidentally left it on a few times when leaving the house... good thing I was home to catch it.

    Dishes: "Doing the dishes" has more precisely meant loading the dishwasher for at least 90% of my life. When I lived in a dishwasher-less apartment (which I did not realize was lacking in this department until after I moved in), I maintained strict rinse-after-washing and allow-everything-to-air-dry policies, resulting in rather artistic mineral deposits on the countertop from hardcore hard water.
    I was a bit surprised to learn, upon helping out some friends with the dishes at their house, that at least one of them didn't rinse after washing and most considered towel-drying standard practice. But I will admit to being a little germ-phobic and refuse to use handtowels at anyone else's house (and barely in my own).

    Foreign supermarkets: I would probably get lost for days in one, given the chance, as I tend to marvel at even the jarred pickles and jams and tinned fish and so on with any text I cannot read in an American store.

  78. I just found this marvelous blog. I'm a native north Texan, no GWB comments - I vote Democratic...anyways, we always "washed up" for dinner and supper. I do my dishes by hand washing, rinsing, then putting them in the dishwasher. Wasteful yes, clean, definitely. Whilst (nod to the Brits) staying with a SE1 Londoner, I "did" his dishes...took me forever to properly wash them, rinse them, and put them to dry on the rack. Of course there was no coffee maker, and all he had was some sort of very sugary instant coffee, so I drank tea, who knew it tasted good hot? I thought it was supposed to be cold over ice! I ventured a look into the kettle while filling it, there was some "funk" in there...I don't think he cleaned it often. I still drank the tea, heck, the water had been heated to 212, or 100 depending...

    There was no shower, but there was some sort of contraption that fit over the two bath spigots - hot and cold, you adjusted it and kind of had a shower, except there was no shower curtain and the hose was short - it was an experience.

    Okay, I've rambled like a country road - looking forward to reading more of this blog. Y'all take care!

  79. @Anonymous from North Texas: Don't worry, the gunk inside the kettle will only have been limescale precipitated out - south London's water is fairly hard, although not nearly as hard as I'm sure Lynneguist suffers with on the South Coast, where you can practically cut it with a knife. It is non-toxic; the only trouble is that it can, over time, interfere with the kettle's function, so most people get rid of it with white vinegar or a proprietary limescale remover.

  80. Only because no one else mentioned it: in US, back in the 60s when we had home ec in high school, we were taught to scrape food off dishes, wash in hot soapy water, rinse with hottest water possible, then allow handwashed dishes to air dry. Drying with (even a clean) towel was discouraged as it's likely to reintroduce germs and debris you've just removed by rinsing.

  81. Very interesting to learn the differences between cultures/locations.
    I am Canadian (CaE) and I am aged 23. I am from Eastern Canada (Prince Edward Island) but live in Ontario now.
    Growing up we mainly used "washing up". I still do. We call it dish liquid, dishwashing liquid, or dish soap. I have a single sink so I do the washing up without filling the sink. I turn on the tap when I pre-rinse and then I wash and then I rinse it clean. I place the dish on the drying rack to air dry. My mother didn't normally rinse after washing and usually used a dish towel to dry them.
    At my father's, we had a dishwasher but occassionally had to do the washing up.
    We say washing machine for the laundry. My father and mother use laundry powder. I use laundry liquid.
    I never used the shower until my mid-teens. I always used the bath. On occasion I use the bath but normally shower. I purchased a detachable shower head instead of having it fixes to the wall.
    As for tea and coffee, I don't drink coffee. I find it revolting. My parents do. My father bought a coffee maker a long time ago and hated it. Both parents boil the water in the electric kettle and use the coffee from the jar and add coffee whitener. We use to have a kettle with the whistle that we would put on the electric stove. I have an electric kettle with the separate base. I prepare my tea in a variety of ways. I don't like tea bags but sometimes that's all there is if at a friend's place. I sometimes boil the water and put the loose tea directly into my cup. Or I use a teapot with the loose tea. Today, oddly enough, is the first time I've put the tea into a diffuser. It didn't make a difference. My step-mother is from Uzbekistan and she does an odd thing where she boils the water and pours it into the teapot with the loose tea. Then she pours some tea straight away into a teacup and then pours that poured tea back into the teapot. She repeats this about three times. She says it makes the tea taste better. I haven't decided if that's true.
    I haven't a clue what my neighbours do for any of the above. Electric kettles are a life staple in Canada. My best friend uses the bath all the time. She rinses I believe.
    That's what it's like in Canada. :)

  82. Glad someone resurrected this post, as I was going to have to trawl back through the archives to look for it! I (re-)discovered another difference in vocabulary as far as washing one's dishes by hand is concerned - in the UK, this will often be done in a washing-up bowl; the equivalent in the US is, I understand, a dishpan.

  83. Erm - earlier, I think (2007 as opposed to 2010!). But still interesting.

  84. People east -perhaps well east - of Britain ... in multitudinous numbers ... rinse their dishes under running water. Anything less than that is, in their eyes, not clean. J.M. Australia

  85. A long way east of Britain but still in Europe I used to work among the Russians, and then I married one. Yes they used to rinse their dishes after washing them, but then so did we in Britain when I was a small boy.

    What 1970's Russia and early 1950's Britain had in common was the absence of washing-up liquid. We used household soap in both countries. In Britain we also used powdered detergent. But when washing-up liquid appeared on the market, housewives bought it because it removed the need for rinsing. Everybody knew that — on what grounds I really can't say.

    Russia is the land of the language with one word for both kettle and teapot. The word is chainik composed of the word for 'tea' and the suffix we all know from sputnik. The association between tea and what a kettle does is so strong that the word chai 'tea' can also refer to hot water (when diluting strong tea, that is).

    This may seem a big digression, but my wife tells me that the family of one of our friends put the kettle on before rinsing the dishes. Yes there was cheap and plentiful hot water in the taps but this family (and no doubt other Russian families) were convinced that hot-tap-water was poisonous.

  86. Thinking about the cheapness of hot water in Soviet Russia has reminded me how we used to think in Britain — and still do in some measure.

    Cold water was free. Well, it wasn't really, but the only charge to the public was hidden within the rates (property tax) bill, which was only paid by people who owned their own homes. (In theory, tenants paid a rates element within the rent they paid their landlords, but that was even more deeply hidden.) In any case the charge was totally unrelated to actual consumption of water. We could and did use as much as we liked.

    [A propos, it was the urge to get rid of this scheme for paying property and water tax which was the undoing of Margaret Thatcher.]

    Hot water wan't free. You had to pay for the electricity or gas that you consumed to heat it. The more you consumed, the more you paid. Not like cold water at all.

    So it actually cost you to rinse dishes in hot water. And most of the year it wasn't much fun rinsing them in cold water.

  87. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. Growing up, I always spoke about doing the dishes. We used “Fairy liquid”, or just “Fairy”, for washing-up liquid ( in the same sense as Hoover for vacuum cleaner). However, this might just be a family thing.

    These days, we use antibacterial washing-up liquid, although it’s my understanding that any detergent concentrated enough to remove grease will kill bugs.

    I rather envy the commenter who has a big enough sink to take a dishpan and leave enough room for rinsing. Our washing-up bowl only just fits the sink. And our single draining board is not quite large enough to let me drain all of the dishes at one time. To wash and rinse would involve several changes of water to do everything. Lynne has mentioned the relative small size of British houses (and everything in them) several times.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)