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Did you warsh behind your ears?

Q:  Can you suss the pronunciation of “wash”?  I’m from central Illinois and I forced myself as an adult to pronounce it “wawsh” instead of the colloquial “warsh.”

A: In American English, the word “wash” is usually pronounced “wawsh” or “wahsh” (wɔʃ or wɑʃ in the International Phonetic Alphabet), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, a lot of Americans pronounce it with an “r” before the “sh,” a usage that may be dying out.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the dialectal “warsh” or “worsh” pronunciation (wɑrš or wɔrš in DARE’s phonemic system) as widespread in the US but especially frequent in the Midland, a belt that extends roughly from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina across the country to Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The earliest recorded example in the regional dictionary is from the late 19th century, though the pronunciation almost certainly appeared in speech before that. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers,” a poem about a doctor in Indiana, by James Whitcomb Riley (The Century Magazine, November 1897):

He orders Euby then to split some wood, and take and build
A fire in kitchen-stove, and git a young spring-chicken killed;
And jes whirled in and th’owed his hat and coat there on the bed,
And warshed his hands and sailed in that-air kitchen, Euby said.

DARE has examples from Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. The latest, a 2003 report from Iowa in the dictionary’s own files, uses “wersh” for the pronunciation spelling of the term: “My sister-in-law says ‘I’m going to do the ‘wersh’ (wash as in laundry).”

Pat, who grew up in Iowa, remembers childhood admonitions like “Go warsh your hands” and “Did you warsh behind your ears?”

Interestingly, the dialectal pronunciation of “wash” with an “r” was first recorded in southern England, not in the American Midland. Here’s the earliest example we’ve found:

“I’ve a yeard em zay he don’t make nort of a leg o’ mutton, and half a peck o’ cider to warsh-n down way” (one of two examples in “The Dialect of West Somerset,” a paper by the philologist Frederick Thomas Elworthy, read at a meeting of the Philological Society in London, Jan. 15, 1875).

We’ve seen no evidence that immigrants from southern England brought the usage to the US Midland, but linguists have found indications that  Scotch-Irish immigrants from Ulster may have been the source of the usage.

The authors of the book Pittsburgh Speech and Pittsburghese (2015) maintain that the dialect spoken by the Scotch-Irish, the first Europeans to settle in southwestern Pennsylvania in large numbers, spread from Pennsylvania across the Midland region.

“The English they spoke became the substrate founder dialect for the area (as for much of the U.S. Midland),” write Barbara Johnstone, Daniel Baumgardt, Maeve Eberhardt, and Scott Kiesling. “Although we have very limited evidence about Scotch-Irish phonology, words and morphosyntactic patterns that are indisputably Scotch-Irish are still prevalent in the area.”

The authors refer to the “r” in “warsh” as an “intrusive” or “epenthetic” (inserted) letter before “ʃ” (the IPA symbol for the “sh” digraph, technically a voiceless postalveolar fricative), and say the usage is declining in American English.

“Epenthetic /r/ was once fairly widespread in the U.S. Midwest and the South,” they write, “but it is becoming less common, as it seems to be in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well.”

As for the word “wash,” it first appeared in Old English, the language spoken from around 450 to 1150, as a verb spelled wæscan, wacsan, waxan, wacxan, or waxsan, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Anglo-Saxon versions of “wash,” the dictionary notes, were nearly always used in the sense of cleaning things, not people. A different verb, þwean, was used for washing the human body (the þ, or thorn, at the beginning of þwean was pronounced as “th”).

The OED’s earliest “wash” example, which we’ve expanded here, is from a collection of  Anglo-Saxon charters: “hi sculan waxan sceap and sciran” (“they shall wash and shear the sheep”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici (1865), by Benjamin Thorpe.

The first Oxford citation for the verb “wash” used for people is from a late Old English version of the Gospel of Matthew, 27:24: “þa genam he water, and weosc hys handa beforan þam folce” (“he [Pilate] took water and washed his hands before the people”). From the Hatton Gospels, written around 1160 in the West Saxon dialect.

The earliest OED example for the noun “wash” in the sense of the cleaning of clothes is from an interlinear gloss, or translation, of the Latin vestimentorum ablutio as the Old English reafa wæsc (“garment wash”). From “De Consuetudine Monachorum” (“Concerning the Habit of the Monks”), an article in Anglia, a German journal of English linguistics, Nov. 27, 2009.

However, that sense of the noun doesn’t appear again in the dictionary until the early 18th century: “Wearing Linen from the Wash” (London Gazette, 1704).

When the noun “wash” was first used for people, it referred to the washing away of stains on one’s honor or morality, as in the OED’s first two examples:

  • “The Blemish once received, no Wash is good For stains of Honor, but th’ Offenders blood” (from The Adventures of Five Hours, a 1663 comedy by the English playwright Samuel Tuke).
  • “A Baptism in Reserve, a Wash for all our Sins” (from a 1666 sermon by William Sancroft, dean of St. Paul’s and later Archbishop of Canterbury).

Finally, the first Oxford citation for the noun used in the sense of physically cleaning oneself is from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), by Charles Dickens: “Mind you take care, young man, and get first wash.” (The passage refers to getting to a well first.)

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