Lather, rinse, revulsion.
Dear Word Detective: My sister recently recommended to me a product that has to be in the running for the worst product name of all time — “No-Poo,” a chemical-free shampoo. Contemplating the name got me to thinking about the origin of the word “shampoo.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Hindi for “to press,” but that hardly explains how such an odd-sounding word came to be used for such an everyday item. Can you please elucidate? — Jackie.
Well, there you go. Who needs CNN? All I have to do is read my email and I learn all sorts of things I’d never have otherwise known about. I just Googled “no-poo” and discovered that there is, evidently, a widespread semi-underground “no poo” movement to eschew shampoo, promoted by people who believe that the chemicals in commercial shampoos are harmful to both your scalp and the planet. The most popular substitute for shampoo seems to be a concoction made with baking soda and vinegar, and the commercial “No Poo” product your sister endorsed is probably a variant on that mixture. I’d give no-pooing a shot myself, but I’m a bit put off by this warning from MSNBC: “In the beginning stages of a no-poo experiment, most people seem to go through a two- to six-week period when their hair looks like, well, poo.” After that, presumably, your hair looks great but your friends are hiding from you. Maybe I’ll just shave my head.
It is true that the root of our modern “shampoo” is the Hindi word “campo” (or “champo”) which is the imperative form of the verb “campna” (or “champna”), meaning “to press.” As far as we know, the word “shampoo” first appeared in print in English in 1762, and the tone of that first use is interesting: “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.” The reason the writer was somewhat anxious is that the original “shampoo” involved much more than the hair. It was a full-body deep massage, apparently involving quite forceful rubbing and kneading of the limbs and torso (thus the relevance of “to press”), administered as part of the standard Turkish bath routine. Only at the end of the process was the shampoo-ee’s hair washed.
The word “shampoo” was brought back to England in accounts of British colonial life in India, but the custom of beginning one’s day with a full “shampoo” was understandably a non-starter in Britain. So by the early 19th century “shampoo” had been narrowed to its current modern senses of simply “the act of washing the hair with a cleaning agent” or “the soap, etc., used to clean one’s hair.”
Interestingly, there was an earlier (but now obsolete) term in English, a bit closer transliteration of the original Hindi “champo,” which was “champing,” meaning the whole full-body “shampoo.” The earliest use of this term found so far in print, from 1698, mentions a mechanical massage apparatus noted by Western travelers in China: “A kind of Instrument, called, in China, a Champing Instrument. Its use is to be [rubbed] or [rolled] over the Muscular Flesh.” The term “champing” may be gone, but I believe the same sort of gizmo can still be seen today in late-night TV infomercials.