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May 6, 2001 - Slangman: 'Clean' Slang - 2002-01-31

MUSIC: "Mr. Clean"

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- a break from spring cleaning, as we look at some terms that only sound like they have to do with tidying up.

RS: Take the phrase "to clean house." Really what that means is to carry out major changes. "Boy, the new owners of that company really cleaned house!"

AA: We called Slangman David Burke in Los Angeles and asked him to "come clean" with us on some other terms.


BURKE: "To 'come clean' with someone means to be honest, to be open. 'Don't hide anything -- come clean with me.' Now if somebody decides they're going to take you to court, and they're going to go after all your money, they're taking you somewhere that you really don't want to go."

RS: "They're taking you to the cleaners!"

BURKE: "Yes, they are. (laughter)"

RS: "Very good!"

BURKE: "And if they win, they're going to 'clean up' -- if you have a lot of money, that is. Now, along the same lines of clean, there are certain things we use around the house to keep things clean. For example, we might use a mop. Well, if somebody were really angry at you, they might say to you, 'I'm going to mop up the floor with you!' Now another thing we use, certainly, is a rag. This is an interesting expression -- I don't know why we say [it] -- 'stop ragging on me, stop harassing me, stop bothering me, don't rag on me so much -- you always criticize me."

AA: Sounds like a need to "clear the air."


BURKE: "That means you're going to discuss the problem between you two and all the negative tension in the air will be gone. That's to clear the air. And that's something, in fact, in my home, we always had a deal when I was kid: We never go to bed angry, we always clear the air."

RS: "I'll have to remember that before my kids go to bed. We never go to bed angry but we need to clear the air more -- we wouldn't want to mop the floor with one another, that's for sure."

BURKE: "Well, you know, when you do mop the floor, you use some kind of detergent or soap. Well, here's one -- now what is 'a soap'?"

AA: "Like a soap opera?"

BURKE: "Yeah, a soap opera. Even that in itself is kind of slang, because a soap opera is simply a continuing drama. We watch them everyday, they're usually about half an hour long, and one show continues into the next, into the next. But years ago the sponsors were all soap [companies] so now they're called soap operas, or simply 'soaps.'"

AA: "And that can be a person's personal problems. 'Oh, that's a real soap opera.'"

BURKE: "That's right, if someone tells you a story about what's happening in their life, and it's such a long and involved story, with so many different twists and turns, it's a 'soap opera.' And that person, of course, may be on his ... soap box?"

AA: "Oh..."

RS: "Right, talking about what he believes or she believes in."

BURKE: "If somebody believes in something and they just don't stop talking about it and they try to convince everyone else to believe what they believe, they're on their soapbox."

RS: "Or we could tell someone to get off of their soapbox."

BURKE: "Right -- or 'get off your soapbox.' OK, if something is really troubling you but you don't want to talk about it, what are you going to do to that problem?"

RS: "You're going to sweep it under the rug."

BURKE: "Exactly, because when you're cleaning your house, if you don't want to be bothered with putting all the dust into the dust bin, throwing it away, you just sweep it under the rug and get rid of it that way."

RS: "Because no one will see it that way, right."

BURKE: "Now we've just talked about clean. Of course, on the flip side of clean..."

RS: "…is dirty."

BURKE: "Dirty!"

RS: "Yeah!"

BURKE: "Well, first of all, the word dirt -- again, here's one that's popular and I don't know why we say it -- 'so what's the dirt on Rosanne?'"

RS: "What's the gossip about me, huh?"

BURKE: "We know that 'dirt' means gossip in slang. Now 'dirty,' this is interesting, for some reason 'dirty' means 'obscene' and if it's really obscene, it's dirtier than dirty, it's 'filthy.' So, dirty can mean not just obscene, it can also mean unpleasant. 'Why are you giving me that dirty look?'"

RS: Maybe the recipient of that dirty look just "trashed" something that belonged to the other person.


"To 'trash' something means to destroy it. For example, if you say 'I trashed my car,' [that means] 'I totally ruined my car.' But if you say 'to get trashed,' it's different than 'to be trashed.' To 'get trashed' means to get drunk. But to 'be trashed' means to be exhausted: After flying for twelve hours, I finally arrived at my destination and I was trashed."

AA: Slangman David Burke invites you to check out his books on slang if you want to know how Americans really talk. If you're on the Internet, visit -- or send questions to

RS: Write to Avi and me at VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC two-zero-two-three-seven USA or With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Cleaning House"/Peggy Scott-Adams