No, ‘shampoo’ is not one part sham, one part poo.

by on January 11, 2016

It is a dark and stormy night.

I play a game that involves filling five different categories with words beginning with the same alphabet. One by one, categories flash onto my phone screen and settle: “Mythological Characters”, “Languages”… then comes the one I’m worst at filling—“Bathroom Things”. I gasp in dismay.


Bath-time sees me obsessively naming objects in the room, and paying particular attention to the first letters of every word—at least for the first 10 seconds or so. Then Brain kicks in and starts to question the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified.

Me: What is the shampoo-ness of a shampoo that makes people call it “shampoo”?

So thanks (or no thanks) to a killer combination of language games, froth, and Saussure, I present to you the etymologies of three words related to cleaning supplies:


The stuff you use to wash your hair? Not quite. Anglicised and borrowed into the English language by British colonialists in India during the early 17th century, “shampoo” comes from Hindi čāmpo (the imperative form of the verb ‘press’), referring to a kind of massage.

In her book, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, Virginia Smith writes “European colonialists had rapidly discovered that perfect body cleanliness was expected of them in accordance with the caste system, and was essential to the authority of the rule.” As a result, early colonialists in India adopted many cleaning habits and inventions from the native people—including taking showers. They kept up these habits when they returned to Europe, thus helping to popularise and ultimately spread the names of these practices.

“Shampoo” was therefore first borrowed with the meaning ‘to massage’. Its meaning, however, came to refer only to the action of vigorously rubbing one’s scalp and washing one’s hair, and/or the cleansing substance used to wash one’s hair (noun). In fact, it was only in the 19th century that the word was used in the sense of ‘washing one’s hair’.


“Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

“We called Nelly a smelly cat because she didn’t use shampoo to shampoo her hair.”


It’s hard to imagine life without soap. Early people living across Europe probably thought so too, with the Oxford English Dictionary calling it “a word widely represented in the European languages.” The word’s origins, however, are obscure.

“Soap” in English is usually accepted to have a Germanic etymology, coming most directly from Old English sápe, meaning ‘salve’. Going further back the Indo-European family tree, Proto-Germanic may have had the form *saipōn possibly meaning ‘dripping thing’ or ‘tree sap’ (i.e. resin) and may be traced even further back to the Proto-Indo-European root word *seib-, meaning, “to pour out, drip, trickle”, according to Etymonline.

In historical linguistics, the asterisk before a word is used to signal that the word is believed to have had a particular form, but there is no proof that it looked or sounded like that form.

The Romance languages take their words for ‘soap’—like Italian sapone and French savon—from Latin sāpo (soap), which itself was borrowed from the Germanic languages. The Romans had no name for soap because they didn’t use soap at the baths. Rather, they applied scented oil and cleaned up using a curved metal instrument called a strigil, to scrape oil, dirt, and sweat from their bodies.

In any case, sápe / sāpo might not have been used so much for washing and/or blowing bubbles, as it was to colour hair. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, also suggests that it be used to treat sores from scrofula (beware Google Images). He writes:

“Soap, too, is very useful for this purpose, an invention of the Gauls for giving a reddish tint to the hair. This substance is prepared from tallow and ashes, the best ashes for the purpose being those of the beech and yoke-elm: there are two kinds of it, the hard soap and the liquid, both of them much used by the people of Germany, the men, in particular, more than the women.” (Natural History, 28.51)

The OED, however, raises the option that the word for soap in romance languages might not have purely Germanic origins because the word is also found in Tartar languages (see Croatian sapun, Azerbaijani sabun, Arabic صابون (sabun)). It thus suggests that “it was introduced by early trade from the East”.

Anyway, soap making really took off. Virginia Smith once again writes that in 17th century England, soap was so much in demand that it was heavily taxed, thus leading to a thriving “soap-smuggling trade between England and the northern coast of France”. Hey does this mean they ran a clean business?

Soap operas

Speaking of soap and romance, the term ‘soap opera’ was first used in a 1939 Newsweek article to refer to a new genre of serialised radio melodramas that had come up in the 1930s.

Originally targeted at housewives, soap operas aired during the day on weekdays so that women could tune in while they were cleaning house. The ‘soap’ part of the phrase comes from how soap manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble often sponsored these serials and broadcasted soap and detergent commercials during the show.

The Christian Century wrote in 1938:

“These fifteen-minute tragedies…I call the ‘soap tragedies’… because it is by the grace of soap I am allowed to shed tears for these characters who suffer so much from life.”

Radio ‘soaps’ eventually made their way on television in the 1950s whilst retaining their complicated, over-the-top plots and melodramatic flavour., for instance, lists this (pretty great) example from General Hospital (1994) as one of the “60 Greatest Soap Opera Moments”:

“After a devastating school-van accident, the heart of little BJ Jones was transplanted into her dying cousin, Maxie. Tragedy met ­catharsis when BJ’s dad, Tony (Brad Maule), laid his head on his niece’s chest and quietly listened to his daughter’s heart, once again pulsing with life.”


In any case, soap operas and drama serials following the melodramatic tradition of soap operas continue to air on television across the world today, with some still partially sponsored by soap companies. So whether you’re jeering at impossible situations or yelling for your mother because Blair is pregnant with Louis’s child but she loves Chuck and the both of them elope but get into a car crash and Blair loses her baby and then decides to marry Louis after all and fast forward to the next season and she’s married to Chuck and Dan is Gossip Girl, well, you just have soap to thank for that.

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