[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2022.]
Q: I’m curious about the use of “washing” in terms like “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Has “washing” here lost its original meaning, like the “gate” of “Pizzagate,” “Russiagate,” and “Irangate”?
A: No, the use of “washing” as a terminal element here reflects its original source in Anglo-Saxon times: wæscan, Old English for to wash away dirt with water. The “gate” of “Pizzagate” comes from the Watergate scandal, not its original sense of an opening in a wall.
A: The word “wash” or “washing” began showing up in the 1980s in various compound terms for the use of superficial, insincere, or misleading information about the environment, feminism, race, and so on, intended to improve the image of a business, organization, country, etc.
The two most common of the terms are “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Others include “rainbow washing,” “purplewashing,” “sportswashing,” “redwashing,” “humanewashing,” “straightwashing,” and “hetwashing.”
(These recent formations are brand-new in comparison with the centuries-old “whitewashing.” And later we’ll discuss “brainwashing,” a term inspired by mid-20th-century totalitarianism and traceable to Chinese in the era of Mao Zedong.)
Nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for “greenwashing” or “greenwash” used in this sense.
American Heritage defines “greenwashing” as “the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.”
Two of the standard dictionaries also have entries for “pinkwashing.” It’s defined in Collins as “a superficial or insincere display of concern for the homosexual community” and in Macmillan as “the use of support for LGBT rights and issues by a state or business to boost its own image.”
The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary adds that a “breast cancer-related sense refers to the pink ribbon, an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.” Though the standard dictionaries don’t include that sense, our database searches suggest that it may be the more common use of the term.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has entries for the nouns “greenwash” and “greenwashing” as well as the verb “greenwash.”
The dictionary says the noun “greenwash,” derived from the adjective “green” and the noun “wash,” is modeled after the noun “whitewash,” which dates from the 16th century. The verb “greenwash” is derived from that noun, and the noun “greenwashing” is derived from the verb.
The OED’s definition of “greenwashing” is similar to the ones above from American Heritage and Merriam-Webster. It defines the noun “greenwash” as “misleading publicity or propaganda disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., regarded as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.”
And the verb, Oxford says, has these two senses: “(a) to mislead (the public) or counter (public or media concerns) by falsely representing a person, company, product, etc., as being environmentally responsible; (b) to misrepresent (a company, its operations, etc.) as environmentally responsible.”
In the earliest recorded example we’ve seen, the noun “greenwash” refers to a plan for an open-space buffer between the cities of Louisville and Lafayette in Colorado:
“It’s a great game, this open space whitewash which should be renamed the ‘political greenwash’ or, better yet, ‘open space hogwash’ because that’s all it is—a salve for all the guilty consciences who now have awakened to see the two cities grown together” (an Aug. 10, 1983, editorial in The Louisville Times).
(We’ve seen earlier examples of “greenwash” or “greenwashing” used in the sense of money laundering or applying a thin wash of color.)
The OED’s first citation for the noun “greenwash” appeared four years later: “They create a lot of environmental ‘greenwash,’ and thank god for it, because they create some very good nature reserves. But they’re also commissioning uneconomic nuclear power stations.” (From the September 1987 issue of Sanity, journal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London.)
Oxford’s earliest example of the verb “greenwash” is from another London periodical: “Continuing to ‘greenwash the public’ would be foolish” (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 14, 1989).
And its earliest citation for “greenwashing” appeared in a California newspaper: “The activists will keep a booth outside the fair and continue to fight what the group calls ‘greenwashing’ by large corporations who tell the public they are working for the environment while continuing to pollute” (The Orange County Register, April 5, 1990).
(The environmental activist Jay Westerveld has been credited by some sources with coining the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of promoting the reuse of towels to save the environment. However, we haven’t been able to find the essay in a search of book, newspaper, and scholarly databases.)
As for “pinkwashing,” the earliest example we’ve found uses the term in its breast-cancer sense: “Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco, which is co-sponsoring the hearing, says companies have co-opted breast cancer awareness and are engaged in a ‘pinkwashing’ of the problem.” (From a report of the California legislature on a joint Senate-Assembly hearing on breast cancer and the environment held on Oct. 23, 2002.) Earlier examples use “pinkwashing” in its literal, coloring sense.
The use of “pinkwashing” for the promotion of gender or sexual-identity issues showed up a decade later. The first example we’ve seen uses the term to describe an Israeli campaign comparing its treatment of gays and lesbians with their treatment in the Arab world: “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ ” (the headline on an opinion article by Sarah Schulman in The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011).
“Greenwashing” is a much more common term than “pinkwashing,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books. The other terms mentioned earlier didn’t register:
“rainbow washing” (promoting gender issues), “purplewashing” (feminism), “sportswashing” (sports), “redwashing” (rightist promotion of leftist issues), “humanewashing” (claims of humane treatment on meat and dairy labeling), “straightwashing” and “hetwashing” (making gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in fiction act like heterosexuals).
Now on to the more sinister “brainwashing,” which makes those other compounds seem like mere marketing strategies.
This is defined in the OED as “the systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.” It also means “this process regarded as the kind of coercive conversion practised by certain totalitarian states on political dissidents.”
But in a “weakened sense,” the dictionary adds, it can also mean “the action of pressurizing or persuading a person into a belief considered undesirable.”
The noun came into English in the early 1950s, the OED says, and was “probably” modeled after the Chinese term xǐ nǎo, from “xǐ to wash, cleanse + nǎo brain.”
The term has become associated with Edward Hunter, an American journalist who reported from Asia and who’s been identified as a clandestine American intelligence agent. His book Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds was completed in 1950 and published on Jan. 1, 1951.
On Sept. 24, 1950, The Miami News published an article by Hunter entitled “ ‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.”
However, the term appeared in print earlier in 1950. The OED has this as the term’s earliest published use: “China under Red flag…. ‘Brain-washing’—a new version of the mental purge” (a heading in The Times of India, Mumbai, Jan. 23, 1950). We haven’t been able to determine whether Hunter wrote this article or not.
The OED also has entries for the noun “brainwash” (1950), the verb “brainwash” (1951), the adjective “brainwashed” (1951), and the noun “brainwasher” (1952), all in reference to China.