Classic Caterpickles: “Why isn’t the laundromat a real mat for laundry?”

It’s summer, I have The Five-Year-Old to myself, and I’m taking full advantage of it. Today I’m running another Classic Caterpickle — a blatant attempt to give myself a day off by rerunning a year-old Caterpickle that I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting while The Five-Year-Old and I go out and play.

Laundromat in Toronto, Canada

Laundromat in Toronto, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all have our strengths. Doing laundry is not one of mine. Data collected over the past ten years of having a washer/dryer suggest that I do laundry at about 63% of the rate at which we generate it in our daily lives. There was a slight uptick around the time we bought a high-efficiency washing machine, due to what I realize now was simply a burst of new gadget enthusiasm. This effect was short-lived, and lugging laundry 25 pounds at a time into (and, after the appropriate bit of processing, out of) a spider- and cat-box infested basement once again became a bit of a chore.

Consequently, every four weeks or so we will run out of something, most often sheets and towels, but occasionally when the spiders are particularly active, more essential bits of clothing as well. When this happens, my husband will declare a laundry emergency, and we’ll pack up everything and lug it down to the local laundromat for a targeted assist.

A recent episode of Word World (The Four-Year-Old’s favorite show at the moment) showed the crew of Word World changing the meaning of words by shoving two words together to create a compound word with a different, but related meaning. (“Mail” and “box” became “mailbox”, a box for mail; and “sand” and “box” became “sandbox”, a box for sand–you get the picture.) This episode was clearly running through my daughter’s head during our latest laundry emergency. With the typical literalism of a Four-Year-Old, my daughter wanted to know why these rules didn’t also apply to laundromat.

The Four-Year-Old: “Mommyo, why isn’t the laundromat a real mat for laundry?”

Mommyo: “Because it’s a place to do laundry and not a rug to stand on while folding clothes.”

The Four-Year-Old: “Why is it named after a mat?”

Mommyo: “It’s not.”

The Four-Year-Old: “What’s it named after?”

And just like that, it was time to Ask the iPhone. Turns out the term “laundromat” was trademarked in 1943 by Westinghouse, and most likely created by mashing together the terms “laundry” and “automat” (a self-serve restaurant where patrons purchased food from walls of coin-operated vending machines rather than through waitstaff). (In a comment posted in response to the question “What is the origin of the word laundromat” on, Ken Greenwald states that his father originally came up with the concept of laundromats and sold it to Westinghouse–comments I’ve made no effort to verify, but which make for an interesting story.)

And in case you were wondering: Before there were laundromats, there was simply the laundry. Until 1916, the word “laundry” referred to the place where one did the washing and to the act of washing, but not to the things one washed.

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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One Response to Classic Caterpickles: “Why isn’t the laundromat a real mat for laundry?”

  1. Pingback: Teaching The Eight-Year-Old to be a savvy spender, Part II | CATERPICKLES

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