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shameless pleading

Rid up

Get cracking.

Dear Word Detective: My question is about a phrase I heard while growing up in Kansas. After dinner, my Mom would say, “it’s time to rid up the dishes.” Where did this expression come from? — Candy.

Ah yes, doing the dishes. I learned something recently about doing the dishes. Last month [referring to Oct. 2008] Hurricane Ike knocked out our power for the better part of a week, which meant that we had no lights, TV, etc. More importantly, it meant, because we have a well, that we had no water. Naturally, the night before we lost power, we had decided to let the dinner dishes slide. Big mistake. After the second day of the outage, I began to dream about being able to wash dishes.

“Rid up” in the sense that your mother used it, “to tidy up or clear a room, to clean,” is not uncommon in the American Midwest, although it certainly isn’t as popular as it once was. But while “rid” in this sense is now considered a dialectical usage restricted largely to the rural US, it was once standard English and in common use way back in 16th century England (“Take off, boy, rid the table, and bring those fritters,” 1599).

The use of “rid” to mean “clean up” is a specialized sense of the same verb “to rid” we use to mean “to make a person or place free of something annoying, troublesome or dangerous” (“If you put the laws in execution, …you would soon rid the country of these vermin,” Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 1749). Probably the most common use of “rid” today is in the verbal phrase “to get rid of,” as in “If only Janet would get rid of that doofus Tony, she might meet a nice guy for a change.”

The roots of “rid” lie in Old Norse, but very early in the word’s history in English it became entangled with another word, “redd,” which is a Scots and northern English dialect word also meaning “to clean, tidy up.” Like “rid,” “redd” arrived in the US via immigrants from Great Britain, but “redd” now tends to be heard primarily in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Over time the parallel usage of “rid” and “redd” to both mean “clear out” or “clean up” has led to the two words nearly merging in their definitions, although “rid” in the more general sense of “make something go away” is far more common than “redd.”

As if all that isn’t complicated enough, there are actually two “redds” lurking out there, one derived from a Middle English root meaning “to clear an area” and the other from a different root meaning “to free or rescue.” But in practical usage the meanings of the two overlap so much that they might as well be considered the same word.

17 comments to Rid up

  • Jordan Moyer

    They are absolutely correct! But I would have to say its a little more common northeast. Growing up in central Pennsylvania this is heard daily.

  • Rayna

    I am glad I found this little article because my “city boy” husband makes fun of me (and his previous “hillbilly” girlfriend) because we say Riddin’ up or Rid up and sometimes it sounds like “reddin’ up”. It’s neat, and I didnt know, that REDD is actually also a word that means cleaning up so my accent which makes me say Reddin’ is actually allowing me to say another word with the same meaning!! I was raised hearing this phrase from all the adult members of my family so I adopted it, and now use it myself. I had to giggle when my Grandma said it after Thanksgiving dinner here at my house….and my husband just looked at me and laughed. Of course she had no idea what we were laughing at her for so I had to tell her.

  • Rayna

    PS forgot to say that I’m from Southern Ohio… so that matches the article also.

  • Karen

    I’m from western PA and have heard and used the term all my life. My husband, from eastern PA never heard of it before meeting me, and seems to get annoyed when I say it!!! LOL!!!

  • Roberta Genini

    My grandmother was from Canton, Ohio (northeastern) of Scots Irish and German stock, born in 1884, and from her and my mother, her daughter, I heard “rid up”, as in “rid up the house,” as an everyday expression. I use to this day, it to the mystification of California people. I live in Fresno, and it isn’t heard here,I do believe, except when I say it. It actually means something a little different than cleaning an area, but that might be part of it. It means to make things orderly and presentable. This is a great expression that shouldn’t be allowed to die out.

  • Shawna

    I grew up hearing “rid the dishes” from my father — Irish by way of Idaho. My family never knew the history of the word except it meant to clean up after a meal. Found the term “redd up” in an Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

  • Lois

    I agree with Roberta that “redd up” as in “redd up the dishes,” meant to clear the table, rinse and organize the dishes for washing, and deal with the leftovers, of course. :)
    I’m from Southeastern Ohio and I picked it up from my mother but my sisters didn’t.
    It seems to come from the same group who say, “Needs cleaned,” rather than “needs to be cleaned.”

  • Susan

    I live in Western New York and have heard both parents use the phrase “rid up” to mean tidy up. Just googled the term because I was wondering about it’s origin.

  • DLB

    I am from Mississippi. A friend of mine from Ohio uses this term and now I say it. But nobody in the South uses this phrase.

  • Lisa

    I grew hearing my mom say this phrase and I now say it, but no one knows what I’m talking about. My mom grew up hearing this. My grandma’s side of the family came over from Germany and lived in northwestern Ohio (Leipsic). Grandpa grew up hearing the phrase as well in northeastern Indiana. I told my mom about this article and she got a kick out of it. Her college roommate was from western PA and they (good naturedly) debated rid vs. redd.

    Other words Grandma used that I need to look up….”davenport” for couch and “oleo” for butter, margarine, etc.

    Gotta go rid up the house now…

  • Julie

    Hah, so my family wasn’t the only one that used the term “rid the dishes” or “rid the table” to mean to clear the table in preparation to wash the dishes. We were in SE Iowa, but my mom’s family came to Iowa from Ohio and Pennsylvania originally.

  • DeeDee

    I grew up in NE Ohio twenty five miles from the PA line and have always used the term redd up the house. Now living in SC, this phrase came up in a discussion with a neghbor who was born in VA. She had never heard that phrase but her husband was born in PA and was well aware of it. Your definition has enlightned me because I really had no way to explain how that phrase came to be. Thanks so much. Now I don’t feel uneducated…there really is an explanation!

  • Patty

    My mom always says “redd off the table” after a meal meaning to clear off the dirty dishes. She is from southern Ohio and I’ve heard it all my life. My husband, however, thought it was humorous and had never heard it before. I’m glad I found this explanation to prove that my mom didn’t make this saying up.

  • Phil

    In Doric Scots usage the phrase, “what a redd up,” means that a fair amount of tidying or clearing will be required. An example might be, “I went into Billy’s bedroom and what a redd up there was in there.”

  • Sandy

    I was born in NE Ohio, Alliance, and moved to Iowa when I was 12. My Mom, and Grandma, both born in Iowa, said this. I used it till my kids made fun of me. I had no clue as to the origin, but now realize that it was a legimiate phrase. My mom’s people were originally from Germany, and I remember them being referred to as “Pennsylvania Dutch”. I’m sending this link to my kids so as to “save face”, since I felt flustered when they called me on it years ago. I just always heard that in my home, and had never thought of where it originated. Thanks for clearing up my little mystery.

  • Alice Smith

    I just looked up this expression for the first time. I grew up in southern Illinois and my mother always said “let’s redd up the table”. I thought nothing about this saying until my husband starting making fun of me for using it. He was from southern Indiana and obviously never heard it before I used it. I stopped saying it and just saw it used in a book I was reading. So I looked it up for the first time and was surprised to find out that other people say it too! My mother used so many unusual idioms that I thought it was something she or her mother made up. All of my relatives have been in southern Illinois for about 2 or 3 generations now, but I believe almost all of them came from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

  • wendy

    I first heard this term in the early 1960s at my elementary school, Pitcairn 3. My wonderful teacher, Mrs. Walthour, used to tell us to “rid up our desks”. One day I told my mother this [not sure why] and her reply was “do WHAT????”.

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