September 08, 2007

White goods all over the world

[Note: This post is unusual in having been modified and expanded numerous times over its first day or two.]

As usual, language turns out to be a much more complex and interesting phenomenon than it first appears, and etymology (word or phrase origins) is one of the most difficult aspects of it. Even though I avoid advertising my email address (it filters out the spam robots and the stupid people, so I end up only getting mail from clever people like you), I have received mail from all over the world about the phrase white goods, which was the subject of my recent quiz question. The picture is cloudy, and neither the history nor the geography of the phrase is clear.

The answer to the quiz question, to begin with, is that white goods means large household appliances — refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, cookers — of the sort that used to be very commonly supplied with a white enamel finish as the only color option. The other meanings I simply made up — except that Wikipedia reports the use of the phrase white goods in American English to mean linen goods like sheets, and identifies the appliance meaning as mainly British. [I missed one additional meaning that the phrase has in another context, pointed out to me by Jonathan Lundell in the USA: in the alcoholic beverage trade, the spirits vodka, gin, tequila, and rum are called white goods, while bourbon, scotch, and other whiskies are called brown goods.] But Language Log readers have also been offering opinions, experiences, and added information about the household appliances meaning. I report some below.

  • Andrew White in Australia says the phrase has been in widespread use in Australia since at least the 1970's, because he remembers ads featuring it when he was a child, and his mother actually had to explain to him that not all white goods had to be white. (Notice, that means the phrase is an idiom: even with perfect knowledge of the meaning of the parts, you cannot figure out the meaning of the whole in a principled way by using general facts about English syntactic structure.)
  • On the other hand, Rory Turnbull in Scotland says that in 21 years of residence in Scotland he has never encountered the phrase there. Nonetheless, it was in Scotland just a few days ago that I saw the phrase in the fine print of the lease on the flat that is my new home. Rory may simply have missed it by not being involved with the sort of trades where white goods are mentioned in bulk.
  • Jussi Piitulainen in Finland couldn't guess the meaning (again, that's the hallmark of an idiom, of course), but notes that the answer is revealed in Collins' excellent COBUILD dictionary.
  • Patrick Heenan in Canada offers evidence that the phrase was current before I emigrated from Britain in 1980. He spent the summer of 1979 working for a department store in Canterbury, England, helping to deliver white goods to customers' homes, and distinctly remembers both that the term was new to him then, and that he and his co-workers were instructed not to use it when talking to customers, who would not understand because — and this is the surprise — it was a specialized term from American English (or so they thought).
  • Steve Jones in Sri Lanka [no, sorry, he's in Saudi Arabia; he gets about a bit] points out that people are regularly wrong about dialect origins, and we need corpus evidence as a corrective. He doesn't think white goods is limited to British English or necessarily came from the UK, having found a Time magazine example from 17th Jan 1950 (White goods (stoves, refrigerators, washing machines) should be painted), and three more from the 1950s and 1960s, only then the word disappears from view, and the next hit in Time is from 2002 (in Asia, Europe and the U.S., which produce "white goods" from washing machines to microwaves). To cap it all, he says he first encountered the phrase in Spanish translation.
  • And talking of translations of the idiom into other languages, Cihan Baran, from Turkey, but currently at Stanford University in California, provides the remarkable piece of information that exactly the same usage is found in Turkish.
  • What's more, Tako Schotanus says witgoed in Dutch has the same sense.
  • Leslie Decker says there is a direct equivalent in Czech as well: bílé zboži.
  • Nick James tells me that the Danish equivalent hvidevarer (lit. white wares/goods) is very common in Denmark (distinguishing between hard white goods, which are appliances, and soft white goods, which are linens etc., according to Jens Bjernemose).
  • José San Martin reports a very similar use of branca in Brazilian Portuguese to distinguish "white" product lines (linha branca) from "brown" ones.
  • Steven Tripp in Japan advises that Jim Breen's online Japanese-English dictionary translates "white goods" to a Japanese phrase, 白物, literally "white things", meaning large household appliances. So at this stage we have at least eight languages worldwide that have corresponding idioms with the same meaning. This is a global meme.
  • Tim McKenzie says that in New Zealand they say whiteware.
  • Thomas Williams, in the UK, searched the Oxford English Dictionary and found examples from The Economist in 1960 (where "so-called" precedes the phrase, and it is in scare quotes), and from the consumer magazine Which? in 1976 talking about "what the trade calls white goods", and from The Times in 1981 using it apparently without any indication that it's anything but a common, everyday term. (Confusing the picture a little, it has an example from American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1943, but that one, "Busily working with the white goods, Ma and Laura discussed Laura's dresses", probably refers to linens and such. The example from Which? is particularly interesting because it also has the phrase "brown goods", which is used in the trade to refer to electronic devices such as TVs and radios. It's still apparently in use, though apparently much less than white goods, possibly because although white goods are still mostly white, the days when radio and TV cases were often made of a ghastly brown Bakelite or similar dark brown fake wood veneer are long past. Tako Schotanus says "brown goods" also has a Dutch counterpart.
  • Steve Maguire tells me that, by 2000 at any rate, staff at Sears (largest appliance retailer in the USA) were using the phrase "white goods", so perhaps it was there in American English all along and I just happened never to come in contact with it during my many years of residency.

What do we learn from this, class? Anyone? Yes, you at the back. That's right. We learn that language is complex and surprising; that idioms do not have either predictable meanings or meanings that are constant across the Anglophone world, though they can spread into different languages; that identifying phrase origins is very difficult; and that the origin of the phrase white goods probably lies somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s but we don't even know which side of the Atlantic it originated. That's all for today. Don't forget there will be another quiz next week. Have a great weekend.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 8, 2007 08:55 AM