Remember, kids, “Has been” will always beat “Never was.”
Dear Word Detective: I recently heard a female “celebrity” being described as a “washed-up” Playboy bunny. I’m curious for where the “washed up” usage comes from; I’m guessing it’s got more to do with flotsam and jetsam appearing on the beach than good bodily hygiene. — Chris, Kansas City.
That’s a good question, which makes me wonder why I didn’t answer it when you sent it in 18 months ago. Mea culpa. The truth is that I’ve been staring out the window at squirrels for the past few years (it’s cheaper than cable), and I’m afraid I’ve adopted their habit of burying especially tasty treasures for later use. This may also explain why my sock drawer is stuffed with oatmeal cookies.
“Wash” is one of those little big words, the small words that, by virtue of meaning something central to everyday life, have acquired an apparently endless entourage of extended and derivative meanings. “Wash” first appeared in Old English, in the form “waescan” or “wascan,” derived from Germanic forms that all point back to the Germanic root word “wat.” That “wat,” by the way, also gave us our English word “water.” In English, the most basic sense of “to wash” has been simply “to cleanse by means of water.” Fun fact: in Old English “waescan” was used only when referring to clothes; if you were washing dishes or your own body, you used “thwean.” Time travelers take note.
In addition to all the literal senses of “wash,” English employs the word in a variety of idioms and slang phrases. To “wash one’s dirty linen in public,” a French proverb popularized by Napoleon, means to expose one’s personal affairs to public scrutiny. When we say that something will “come out in the wash,” an idiom dating back to about 1900, we mean that either the truth will be revealed (i.e., dirt washed away) or that a situation will be made right (i.e., a stain removed). If an assertion or alibi won’t stand scrutiny, we say “it won’t wash,” meaning that it will prove to be untrue or unacceptable in the metaphorical “wash” of close examination.
“Wash up,” of which “washed up” is an adjectival form, does indeed mean “to be deposited on shore by the action of waves or the tide,” as “flotsam” and “jetsam” frequently are. (“Flotsam,” strictly speaking, means floating items (cargo, tools, etc.) washed overboard from a ship, possibly as it sinks, while “jetsam” means items deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned), sometimes in order to avoid sinking.) “Washed up” in this “what’s that on the beach” sense would make a vivid, if somewhat grisly, slang metaphor for “worn out” or “has-been.”
Fortunately, the origin of “washed up” in the “brilliant career definitely over” sense is much more benign. “Wash up” has been used as slang meaning “to finish, to end” since the 1920s. The original sense seems to have been “washing up,” cleaning one’s hands, face, etc., after completing a job, and the earliest citations indicate that it first became popular in the theater (“[Stage slang.] Washed up, all through for the night,” NY Times, 1923). But another citation, this one from the NY World in 1925, indicates that “wash up” was also used in the sense of “to get rid of” or “to deep six” an unpromising performer (“‘That guy might be all right if he washed up [washed, cleaned himself],’ commented Buck… Just then the stage manager called out: ‘What will I do with this act, Mr. Ziegfeld?’ ‘Wash up him and the bird,’ said Flo [Ziegfeld] and that was the last of the Italian and his trained canary.”). So a “washed up” act was one that had been “washed up” and sent home.
“Wash up” has occasionally been used in a positive “finish” or “complete” sense (“‘I had an idea,’ he explained.? ‘Just came to me, riding back. I think I know how I can wash it up.’? He would write it now — tonight!” 1929). But “washed up” (or “all washed up”) has pretty consistently meant “worn out, finished, ruined,” whether it was applied to a personal relationship or the career of someone considered, perhaps a bit prematurely, a has-been (“Once he was the most underestimated man in American politics — a washed-up movie star, it was said, who was too old, too simple and too far right to be President,” Newsweek, 1980).