Whitewash, pinkwash, cloudwash, and blackwash: the many shades of -wash
Back in the 16th century, whitewash was exactly what it sounded like: to wash a wall with some sort of substance in order to make it white. But today, if a company is greenwashing, redwashing, or blackwashing, it isn’t concerned with what colour the new office will be. For -wash, as a combining form, has taken on new, and complex, shades of meaning in the English language.
The OED first cites whitewash as a verb in the 1570s, meaning ‘making a fabric lighter or whiter’. Its more common literal sense, ‘covering a wall or ceiling with whitewash’, appears in the written record shortly thereafter, as did its noun form.
The metaphorical, and modern, sense of whitewash emerges by the 18th century. In his 1703 tract Lingua Tersancta, controversial English mystic William Freke used ‘white-washing’ as an attempt ‘of gain by deceit’, as the OED quotes him. Just as a whitewash conceals a wall’s cracks and blemishes, so a figurative whitewash, like Freke’s, conceals faults in order to make someone or something look better than they actually are.
Whitewash has since narrowed to the slightly more specific sense of ‘deliberately attempting to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about (a person of organization)’, as Oxford Dictionaries define it. But the term has also inspired many ‘colourful’ variations. Most notable is greenwash. First attested in the 1980s, companies are guilty of greenwashing when they misleadingly present an environmentally responsible image (‘green’). Yet more recently, cancer activists have decried so-called pinkwashing, which is when companies market goods and services that support women’s health causes, especially breast cancer. Here, pink alludes to the pink ribbon, the symbol of breast cancer awareness. The concern, for critics of greenwashing and pinkwashing, is that organizations pretend to care about such worthy causes, popular among some portion of its consumers or the public, insofar as it boosts their profit or reputation.
As these examples suggest, we have freed -wash up from its original compound, whitewash, using it like a suffix to form new words. (Some linguists call this kind of combining form a ‘libfix’.) Some actions may not seem nefarious on the surface – supporting women’s health causes, for instance – but in these new compounds, -wash typically criticizes a business’s deceptive appropriation of a popular cause or trend in order to bolster its public image or benefit from the ensuing positive associations. In bluewashing, an organization allies itself with the missions of the UN, whose flag is blue. In redwashing, an organization postures concerns for Native Americans. And riffing off greenwashing, brownwashing occurs when a company understates its environmental sustainability, often as a way to cover up lower profits incurred as a result of investing in green practices.
In good, or bad, company
But -wash isn’t limited to colors, as effective as their callback to the original whitewash may be. Businesses cloudwash a product or service when they rebrand it to boast its connection, no matter how marginal or peripheral, to the Internet, or ‘cloud’. Healthwashing happens when a product is marketed as healthier than it is in reality, often taking advantage of buzzwords like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘whole’, and ‘gluten-free’.
In this vein, -wash has sparked a coinage for seemingly every cause. Like healthwashing, vegan-washing scolds businesses trying to capitalize on a growing appetite for plant-based foods. And like pinkwashing, femwashing, gaywashing, and vet-washing call out companies exploiting female empowerment, LGBTQ rights, and support for veterans, respectively, to sell their wares. Altogether, some critics refer to such underhanded cause-marketing as goodwashing.
Other -wash formations are ribbing cultural trends. App-washing, akin to cloudwashing, knocks the tech culture of ‘there’s an app for that’. Thoughtwashing, nodding to ‘thought leadership’, takes organizations to task for passing off something ordinary as innovative and disruptive. And joywashing, as a movement of mindful and authentic living is afoot, frowns at advertisements that promise their product will bring the joy missing in life.
Most of these -wash compounds are nonce words. Many will exist simply as clever one-offs; others, perhaps, will become established in the lexicon, as with greenwashing. On the one hand, this state of wordplay suggests -wash is very productive: it’s giving voice to a larger and very real cultural frustration over the capitalization of ethics, identity, philanthropy, and lifestyles, and it’s suggesting how keenly many see these efforts at corporate social responsibility as inauthentic and manipulative. On the other hand, the wordplay shows –wash is in flux. We’re still in a period of experimentation with the suffix, and meanings have yet to settle. For instance, brownwashing, building on greenwashing, also notes a trend towards ‘brown’ products, associated with recycled paper. Redwashing has also been used as slang for the slandering of people as communists.
And this latter example, redwashing, points to the latest evolution in -wash as a combining form: identity politics. The representation of women and people of color on film has proven a fertile ground for -wash. Light-washing describes the casting of a lighter-skinned person of color, presumed to be more attractive and less threatening to mainstream audiences, over a darker-skinned counterpart, accusations the 2016 film Nina notably faced. But speakers have deployed -wash in the other direction, too. Yellow-washing and blackwashing have voiced anger over depicting White characters as Asian or Black, respectively.
The -wash cycle
These identity-washed uses suggest -wash is coming full circle. While the likes of greenwash and pinkwash convey a deceptive embrace of a cause, yellow-washing and blackwashing imply, for their users, an unwelcome ‘wash’, or representation, of minorities. (The color term in the latter compounds, in other words, is treated as undesirable.) Consider other uses of blackwash, a derogatory term which casts minority achievement as the result of affirmative action or tokenism. These instances of -wash aren’t considered deceptive but forced and put-upon.
But again, even this ‘identity -wash’ works in both directions. Dude-washing has criticized the deliberate over-masculinization in advertisements, thin-washing the pervasive portrait of being skinny as superior to being fat, and straightwashing laments the marginalization of the LGBTQ community.
As for whitewashing, the word which launched it all? These days, whitewashing can also refer to the exclusion of persons of color in media, literature, and the like, as if they’ve been washed over with White culture – and it shows just how far -wash has come, and, if current lexical trends are any measure, will continue to go.