The Grammarphobia Blog

Launderers and laundresses

Q: Enjoyed your post about “stewardess” and other feminized words ending in “-ess.” But you didn’t discuss “laundress.” Is there a nongendered version?

A: Yes, there is a nongendered version of “laundress.” In fact, there are two of them, though they’re now obsolete or rare in the sense you’re asking about.

Before “laundress” came along in the 16th century, someone who washes clothes, male or female, was called a “launder” or a “launderer.”

The noun “launder,” first recorded in the 13th or 14th century but now obsolete, meant “a person (of either sex) who washes linen,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the story of St. Brice in The Early South-English Legendary, a chronicle of the lives of church figures:

“A woman þat his lander was” (“A woman that was his launder”). The Legendary was compiled sometime between the late 1200s and 1350.

A century or so later, the unisex noun appeared in Promptorium Parvulorum (circa 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Lawndere, lotor, lotrix.” (The Latin lotor and lotrix are masculine and feminine nouns for “washer.”)

A little later in the 15th century, “launderer” appeared, meaning “one who launders (linen),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Catholicon Anglicum, an English-Latin wordbook written around 1475: “Lawnderer, candidaria, lotrix.”

The term is rarely used in that sense today. Commercial laundries sometimes refer to themselves as “launderers,” but the word is usually used now for a person who launders money, not clothes.

As for someone who works in a laundry, he or she would likely be called a “laundry worker,” rather than a “launderer” or a “laundress.”

Interestingly, the gender-free noun “launder” originated as a contraction of “lavender,” which the OED defines as “a washerwoman, laundress.” Only rarely, the dictionary says, did “lavender” mean “a man who washes clothes, a washerman.”

As the dictionary says, this sense of “lavender,” which first appeared in writing about 1325, came from the Old French nouns for people who do washing—lavandier (masculine) and lavandiere (feminine)—though the ultimate source is the Latin verb lavāre (to wash).

We know what you’re thinking. But no, the obsolete “lavender” that means a washerwoman is probably not related to the other “lavender,” the plant that produces the fragrant pale-purple flowers.

The botanical word “lavender” (later also used for the scent and the color) came into English before 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French (lavandre), the OED says.

The original source was a medieval Latin word for the plant, first spelled livendula (or perhaps lividula), and later lavendula. As the OED explains, some etymologists think the ultimate source may be the classical Latin adjective lividus (bluish, livid).

If so, the two “lavenders” aren’t etymologically connected, though they later became associated because of the use of lavender perfumes, oils, and dried flowers in caring for linens.

Meanwhile, the “lavender” that meant a washerwoman existed alongside the neutral “launder” and “launderer” (anyone who does washing) until well into the 16th century, when “laundress”  arrived on the scene.

The OED defines “laundress” as “a woman whose occupation it is to wash and ‘get up’ linen,” and says it was derived from the neuter noun “launder” plus the “-ess” suffix.

The two earliest written uses of “laundress” were recorded in the same year, 1555. It was a time, as we wrote in our post about those other “-ess” words, when English writers were “very freely” inventing words ending in the feminine suffix.

Here are the two 1555 uses, cited in the OED:

“As the dier, blecher or the landres washeth … the foule, vnclenly and defyled clothes.” (From A Spyrytuall and Moost Precyouse Pearle, Miles Coverdale’s translation of a work by Otto Werdmueller.)

“He sent to lande certeyne of his men with the landresses of the shyppes.” (From The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, Richard Eden’s translation of a work by Peter Martyr of Angleria.)

Shakespeare used the term in a comic scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, believed to have been written in 1597 or earlier: “Carry them to the Landresse in Datchet mead.” (The reference is to a load of dirty clothes, beneath which Falstaff is concealed in a very large wash basket.)

After “laundress” became established, the similar use of “lavender” disappeared, perhaps because of the popularity of the botanical term. And the gender-neutral “launder” also vanished, probably because washing was almost always done by women or girls. Both words died out in the late 1500s.

It’s notable that the verb “launder” didn’t appear until after the nouns for the workers were established.

The OED defines the verb as “to wash and ‘get up’ (linen),” and says it was derived from the earlier noun “launder,” for a person who does washing.

The OED’s first citation is a figurative usage in Shakespeare’s narrative poem A Louers Complaint (published in 1609 and probably not written earlier than 1590): “Laundring the silken figures in the brine, / That seasoned woe had pelleted in teares.”

This was not long after the noun “laundry” appeared, for the place where the washing is done. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Hyther [hither] also runnes the water from the Laundry to moist it the better.” (From Foure Bookes of Husbandry, Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of a Latin treatise on farming by Conrad Heresbach.)

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that “laundry” was used as a collective term for the washables themselves. The OED’s first citation is from 1916, but we’ve found earlier examples in 1890s newspaper ads. We’ll cite a few:

“Who Does Your Laundry? We Should Like To,” from the Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle, Jan. 7, 1893 … “Try the work and you will never again send laundry out of the city,” from the Daily Greencastle (Ind.) Banner and Times, Jan. 1, 1894 … “Bring Us Your Laundry,” from the Quill (La Harpe, Ill.), Jan. 4, 1895.

In the early 20th century, this sense of “laundry” became more common. And new words followed—“laundromat” (we’ve found examples from 1941), and “launderette” (1945).

As the OED explains, laundromat” originated as a proprietary name for a Westinghouse washing machine and later came to mean a coin-operated laundry.

We could go on, but we’re feeling a bit washed out.

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