August 5, 2015

Case File #015.08.05: DETERGENT

The adjective detergent was derived from the Latin verb detergere—or rather, from its present participle, detergentem—which meant “to wipe away or clear off” and was itself formed from the Latin prefix de-, meaning “off” or “away,” and the verb tergere, meaning “to rub, wipe, or polish.” Thus, when the English word first appeared in the early seventeenth century, it meant “cleansing” or “purifying,” though it was initially used only as a medical term. It wasn't until around 1675 that English speakers started using the adjective in a non-medical context, and not long after, the noun sense—that is, “a cleansing agent”—also came into use. The association of detergent with a factory-made chemical cleanser, however, is a relatively new phenomenon that originated in the 1930s.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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