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Soap's Connection to 'Soap Opera'

This soap called Evoware is from Indonesia. It is wrapped with seaweed-based packaging that you can eat. Picture taken October 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Beawiharta)
This soap called Evoware is from Indonesia. It is wrapped with seaweed-based packaging that you can eat. Picture taken October 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Beawiharta)
Soap's Connection to 'Soap Opera'
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Now, Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On this program we talk about common expressions in American English. And on today’s show we will talk about a very common household object. People used it thousands of years ago and most likely you used it today. I am talking about soap.

History experts say instructions for making soap were reportedly found on a clay Babylonian tablet. Ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Roman cultures also used some kind of soap.

Today there are many different types of soap – from bars to liquid, from scented to plain. There are soaps to clean our bodies, our pets, our cars and our homes.

Advertising for these products is big business. In fact, it is this connection to advertising that has given us the name of a very popular form of entertainment – soap operas.

Just as many cultures have their own kinds of soaps, they also have their own kinds of soap operas – complicated stories about human relationships.

A Chinese woman plays a card games near South Korean soap operas DVDs on sale at a shop in Yanji, in Jilin province, Dec. 7, 2012.
A Chinese woman plays a card games near South Korean soap operas DVDs on sale at a shop in Yanji, in Jilin province, Dec. 7, 2012.

Many years ago (in the U.S.), they were the first programs to be paid for by soap-making companies. Companies that made soaps, detergents and other cleaning products originally broadcast their commercials during these shows. And who was mainly watching these daytime shows?


So, these commercials were aimed at women who may have been cleaning their homes while watching the television program.

Put new Duz in your washing machine. Finest duds (clothes) you’ve ever seen. Bigger news now when you sing, D-U-Z does everything.The new Duz brings you 'The Guiding Light' created by Irma Phillips.

(Duz detergent commercial opening "The Guiding Light" from 1960.)

So, that is where the “soap” part of the name "soap opera" comes from. But what about “opera”? Why not call them “soap shows”?

Well, in soap operas, the human stories that play out are extreme. The characters and situations of the shows are over-the-top! They probably would not happen in real life. In fact, that is why many people criticize or make fun of soaps. They are too unrealistic.

But who cares?! Not the people who love soap operas, that’s for sure.

People do not watch soap operas to see real life or to learn valuable lessons. Soap operas are escapist entertainment. You get to escape your own life and live dangerously in someone else’s … for about an hour at a time.

As you may have noticed during this program, we often call soap operas just “soaps,” as in, “Don’t bother Felicia right now. She is catching up on all her soaps.”

Now, some people may not want to admit that they enjoy watching such a show. For this reason, some people call soap operas their “guilty pleasure.”

Guilty pleasures appeal to our secret desires, the ones we do not like to publicly share. You watch something, enjoy it … and then feel a little guilty afterward.

People who watch soap operas – either daytime or nighttime soaps – are usually very loyal followers. In fact, it is this audience loyalty that appealed to advertisers in the first place.

Soaps can be very addictive. Their stories are open-ended. Each episode leads to the next, to the next, to the next. And they usually end on some sort of cliffhanger, or an especially exciting ending. You really want to know what will happen next.

“Tune in next week!”

And you do tune in next week. You can’t wait to find out what happens! That is how a soap opera gets you hooked.

But that’s not all! I have so much more to tell you …

… next week on Words and Their Stories.

I’m Anna Matteo.

As now for the next 30 minutes, “As the World Turns” brought to you today by Ivory soap. Ninety-nine and forty-forty to 100 percent pure. It floats!

(1960 opening for the television soap opera “As the World Turns.)

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. Earlier in the program, we heard the title songs from the following soap operas: Young and the Restless (U.S.), “Nadia’s Theme,” Eternal Love (China), “Nine Part Rhyme,” María La Del Barrio (Mexico), “Thalia,” Balika Vadhu (India).


Words in This Story

soap n. a substance that is used for washing something

tablet n. a flat piece of stone, clay, or wood that has writing on it

scented adj. having a perfumed smell

complicated adj. difficult to understand or explain

detergent n. a powder or liquid that is used to clean clothes, dishes, etc. : a chemical substance that is like soap

character n. a person in a story or play

over-the-top informal : going beyond what is expected, usual, normal, or appropriate

addictive adj. very enjoyable in a way that makes you want to do or have something again

open-ended adj. not ending in a certain way or on a certain date

cliffhanger n. a story, contest, or situation that is very exciting because what is going to happen next is not known

hooked on idiomatic expression : very interested and enthusiastic about (something)