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'Housekeeping' and 'Clean House' Mean More Than Cleaning

A robot helps clean up at the Noodle Topia in Michigan, March 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A robot helps clean up at the Noodle Topia in Michigan, March 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
'Housekeeping' and 'Clean House' Mean More Than Cleaning
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And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

Spring is a time of the year when many people take time to clean. They straighten up messy areas of their homes. They tidy up!

Spring cleaning is a popular activity for many people. It is a chance to get rid of unnecessary items and get their homes clean and organized. Spring cleaning usually involves big projects, such as taking down and washing curtains, shaking out rugs and cleaning carpets, perhaps clearing out and cleaning up cabinets and closets.

Spring cleaning is a thorough cleaning inside and out.

So, on today’s program we are going to clean house, too!

Daily cleaning tasks like doing the laundry or dishes are not considered spring cleaning. That is often called housekeeping or cleaning house. We use both of these terms in idiomatic ways.

First, let’s talk about cleaning house. When an organization, business or other group clean house, it gets rid of people or policies that make trouble or that do not work.

Here’s an example.

My friend has a company that is suffering from troublemaking and non-productive employees. If the owner wants the company to succeed, she may need to clean house and fire anyone not contributing.

Cleaning house can also mean to wipe out corruption or inefficiency. When we use it this way, we are often talking about a political party or a governmental office.

Here’s an example for that situation:

The city official in charge of education reform made cleaning house on corruption and waste the first item on his to-do list.

Sometimes we put words in between “clean” and “house” to make the expression more specific, as in this example:

To help their company succeed, the business partners needed to clean their financial house. And that meant hiring a new financial manager – one that wouldn’t steal from them.

If you research the expression online, you may find another meaning for “cleaning house” – to punish or to give a beating. For example, the bully threatened to clean house on anyone who disagreed with him. But this usage is not as common as getting rid of ineffectual, troublesome or wasteful elements in a group.

Marie Kondo is the author of the best-selling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" (Photo Credit: Natsuno Ichigo)
Marie Kondo is the author of the best-selling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" (Photo Credit: Natsuno Ichigo)

Now let’s talk about housekeeping.

Housekeeping defines the act of managing a household. Cleaning, organizing, paying the bills, and keeping food stocked can all be called housekeeping. Sometimes we call this putting our house in order. When we put our house in order we make sure it is running smoothly. It can also mean to organize your finances and other responsibilities, especially when preparing for a life-changing event.

Used as a noun, housekeeping is also the department at a hotel in charge of keeping your room clean and stocked with necessary items like towels and soap.

Housekeeping also describes any repeated tasks that keep a business or organization running smoothly. So, housekeeping issues for a business could be managing and scheduling resources. It could also be tasks like keeping your computer up and running or updating staff on events or policy changes.

So, think of it this way. Housekeeping issues are the day-to-day, ongoing tasks and responsibilities that keep a business, home, or organization running smoothly. And cleaning house is to get rid of anything that is not working or is creating a mess – either literally or figuratively.

As for usage, both of these expressions can be used in formal and informal situations.

That’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo!

Anna Matteo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

tidy up – phrasal verb to put in order : to clean up a mess

idiomatic – adj. of or relating to an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for "undecided") or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)

corruption – n. dishonest or evil behavior : the causing of someone else to do wrong (as by bribery)

inefficiency – n. something that is wasteful of time or energy

ineffectual – adj. not producing the proper or intended effect

manage – v. to look after and make decisions about

literally – adv. in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression

figuratively – adv. with a meaning that is metaphorical rather than literal

informal – adj. suited for ordinary or everyday use

formal – adj. relating to, suitable for, or being an event requiring elegant dress and manners


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