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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

What is laundry?

Forget doing laundry. We need to focus on defining it.

I’m not joking. You probably think you already know what laundry is. And you probably use the word “laundry” correctly, to the extent that such a logical and ontological abomination of a word can be used correctly, because some part of your brain knows what counts as laundry and what doesn’t — the same part of your brain that always gets quiet when someone asks you a question about how your native language works.

The word “laundry” has multiple meanings. Laundry can be the activity of washing clothes, bedding, towels or other washable cloth items — but that’s easier to define, so I’ll set that aside for now. The kind of laundry I’m worried about is the clothes and bedding and things themselves, the recipients of this action of washing, which are unfortunately also called “laundry.”

Laundry is not just dirty clothes, bedding or towels. The word probably describes dirty things more often than clean ones, but it’s hard to hear “clean laundry” as an oxymoron — especially since we do not even need the word “clean” to talk about clean laundry. When your parents nag you to “put your laundry away,” you know they’re talking about the clean clothes that have been sitting in your laundry basket for weeks because you haven’t found it in yourself to put them into drawers, not the dirty clothes that are sitting in a pile on the floor because the clean clothes are in the basket. (I don’t judge.) And most importantly, clothing is clearly laundry the entire time it is being washed and dried. It is no less laundrific, so to speak, in the dryer or on the clothesline than it is in the washer.

So not all laundry is dirty. To add insult to injury, it is even clearer that plenty of dirty clothes and other cloth items are not laundry. No matter how many days in a row you wear the same clothes, they do not become laundry until you take them off and put them somewhere — in a laundry basket or a pile on the ground, perhaps — with the genuine intention of washing them before you wear them again. The same goes for your sheets: they simply cannot become laundry until you’ve managed the heroic feat of stripping them off your mattress. To take a somewhat more dramatic example: if you drown in a swamp, your clothes will be dirty, but they will never be laundry again unless someone finds your body and takes the clothes off in order to wash them.

An ideal definition provides both necessary and sufficient conditions for being the type of thing in question. Many definitions only do one of these things. Definitions that do neither, like “Laundry is dirty clothes or other cloth items,” belong in the eighth circle of hell.

But maybe we’re overthinking things. It’s embarrassing to look up the definitions of words you use every day, but embarrassment is part of life, so here we go: according to Merriam-Webster, laundry is “clothes or linens that have been or are to be laundered.”

This is helpful. It captures the dual nature of laundry, as both the cleanest and the dirtiest of washable cloth. And “linens,” in particular, is a beautiful catch-all term (especially for use with people like me, who don’t entirely know what it means and probably won’t notice if you use it slightly wrong). But there are still problems. For one thing, this definition entirely excludes clothes and linens that are in the process of being laundered. A more difficult problem, however, is that the definition is highly open to interpretation. What should we make of “have been or are to be laundered”? Almost all clothes and linens have been washed at some time or another, unless they are brand new, in which case they are arguably all to be washed as soon as you buy them, since many fabrics are sprayed with strange chemicals before they’re sold. In other words, almost all clothes are laundry. So once we figure out for sure what laundry is, would you like to go laundry-shopping together? Maybe I should put on some warmer laundry first… Did you say you wanted to be a laundry designer?

Perhaps we should interpret the Merriam-Webster definition a bit more narrowly. What if, instead of including all clothes and linens that have been washed at any time in history, and all clothes and linens that ought to be washed soon, “laundry” only includes clothes and linens that have been washed recently or actually will be washed soon? The problem is that laundry is not defined merely by temporal proximity to its own washing. The pile of clean napkins that have been sitting in a chair in the dining room for a week because no one wants to put them away have been laundry all week, and will remain laundry until someone decides to put them into drawers (and perhaps fold them). On the other hand, if you pull some moist clothes out of the dryer halfway through the cycle because they’re your only clean clothes and you’re running late to class, these clothes cease to be laundry as soon as you put them on (even if some of them remain inside out). 

So there is no fixed length of time for which clothes and linens count as laundry before or after being washed. What about a spatial criterion? The laundry room itself cannot be the defining factor, because the clothes you are wearing do not become laundry if you duck into the laundry room for a Zoom meeting. What if laundry must be located in one of two types of container: either in a container where it is actually washed or dried, or in a container that is meant to transport it to or from a location of washing or drying? You might not notice the problem if you are a neater person than I am, but laundry need not be in a container at all. It can sit on a chair or the floor, and you can even carry it to and from the laundry room with your bare hands (slightly winnowing your collection of socks and underwear in the process). Conversely, even squeezing your entire body into the washing machine (again, I don’t judge) would not turn your current outfit into laundry, because clothes are not laundry while they are being worn.

What could laundry possibly be, then? Unless clothes or linens are actively being washed or dried, their laundrifical status depends partly on our intentions: you can carry clothes to the laundry room whenever you want, but that doesn’t make them laundry unless you take them there in order to wash them. So here is the definition I propose: laundry is clothes or linens that are either (1) in the process of being washed or dried, or (2) on their way to or from a particular place, respectively either in order to be washed or dried in that place or in order to be brought back into use.

That’s as good as I can do for now. (Try not to worry about when someone’s clothes become laundry if they walk to the laundry room with the intention of taking off their current clothes as soon as they get there and tossing them straight into the washing machine.)

There is also a bigger problem: what kind of category is this? Do you and your friends have special nicknames that you only want people to call you when you’re, say, “either in the act of eating or on your way to or from Sayles or the dining hall”? Is there a special word for “students either in or on their way to class”? What is so special about clothes when they’re in the wash, on the clothesline or being folded and put into drawers, but not when they’re in drawers or on people’s bodies? Can I take a moment to think of a term for walking, biking and all other modes of transportation besides running, driving or sailing?

It would mean so much to me if you stop using the word “laundry.”

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