The Grammarphobia Blog

Abluting in the loo

Q: The noun “ablution,” namely the washing of one’s body, suggests a verb “ablute.” Ever hear of that?

A: Yes, there is a verb “ablute.” In fact, people have been “abluting” themselves for more than 300 years, though the verb is used infrequently these days, and mainly in British English.

Merriam-Webster Online defines the verb “ablute” as “to wash one’s body” or “to perform one’s ablutions,” and says it’s synonymous with “bathe.”

The verb is “chiefly British,” M-W says, and provides two contemporary examples: “the minimalist bathroom where he ablutes every day” (Irish Times, Oct. 12, 2009), and “After I finished the paper, I headed to the bathroom to ablute myself, as is my wholesome Canadian habit” (Toronto Globe and Mail, March 13, 2004).

As those examples demonstrate, the verb is both intransitive (used without an object, as in “he ablutes every day”), and transitive (used with an object, as in “to ablute myself”).

This is not a common word, even in dictionaries—at least the ordinary ones. Of course it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, where it’s described as “colloquial.” Most of the contemporary uses we’ve seen are semi-humorous.

As for standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) are the only ones we’ve found, British or American, that have entries for the verb.

However, several standard dictionaries have entries for the adjective “abluted” (washed clean, thoroughly washed) and for the noun “abluent” (a cleansing substance). And “ablution” (the washing of one’s body, mostly used in the plural) is found nearly everywhere.

One might assume that “ablute” was a humorous back-formation based on “ablutions,” but that’s not how the verb originated.

The OED says “ablute” was first recorded in the early 1700s as a direct borrowing from classical Latin, in which ablūt– is the past participial stem of abluere (to wash off).

The first use was medical: “Let the Wound be well abluted with hot Tinctures de Myrrha” (from The Experienced Chirurgion, 1703, by the naval surgeon John Moyle. “Chirurgion” was an early spelling of “surgeon”).

The verb “ablute” has been found in writing ever since. But as we mentioned above, the more modern sightings are colloquial and often tongue-in-cheek. Here’s a partial selection from the OED:

“We are a private lot, not inclined to communal abluting” (the Sun Herald, Sydney, March 14, 1993; here the derivative “abluting” is a noun).

“I abluted in a staff loo” (Derbyshire Life and Countryside magazine, November 2002).

“Also featured in the catalogue are soap applicators for abluting those hard-to-get-to little places” (the Independent on Sunday, June 10, 2007).

As for those relatives of “ablute,” the first to be recorded in English was “ablution” in the late 14th century. This noun, meaning “the act or process of washing clean,” came partly from French and partly from Latin.

The earliest known example, circa 1395, is in the plural and was spelled “ablucions” in Middle English. But in those days it referred to the purification of substances by emulsifying them in hot water, not to personal cleanliness.

On a more personal level, the word came to mean ritual religious washing in the 1500s, and ordinary bathing in the 1600s.

But even then “ablution” (more often “ablutions”), when used in reference to bathing or washing oneself, was “frequently humorous (with mock formal tone),” Oxford says.

The earliest use for personal bathing is from 1664, but this example better illustrates the mock formality of the word: “Having performed the ceremony of ablution, I shifted” (Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random, 1748).

The adjective “abluted,” defined in the OED as “that has been washed clean,” was first recorded in 1650. Like the verb “ablute,” it comes from classical Latin (ablūtus, past participle of abluere, to wash off or away).

Similarly, the noun “abluent” (a cleansing agent), first recorded in 1726, is from classical Latin (abluent, present participle of abluere). Oxford adds that the post-classical Latin noun abluentia (1702) meant “cleansing medicines.”

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