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.

30 comments on this post.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Rayna:

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

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.”