I love reading about words. They have such interesting histories.

I had an experience like that last week. I was reading an article in the New York Times about two women who had an altercation in a McDonalds. It was a rather sleazy, forgettable story, except that something in the article caught my eye. One of the women in the fight said she had “washed” the other. The reporter had never heard the term before. She guessed that it meant “beat up” or “whipped.”

It does. But guess where it comes from! For the past two weeks I’ve been enjoying Adam Goodheart’s 1861, his history of the opening days of the Civil War. One of the first regiments recruited to fight for the Union was known as the Fire Zouaves because its soldiers belonged to New York City’s volunteer fire companies. (A zouave, by the way, was a soldier dressed in distinctive Algerian costume. The French had recently colonized Algeria. They recruited local tribesmen known as zouaves to fight for them. The exotic uniform was considered très chic.)

Goodheart gives the background of the volunteer fire companies. Essentially, they were street gangs who spent as much time fighting each other as they did fighting fires. Their “engines” were pumps on wheels. When a fire alarm came in, the firemen would run through the streets, pulling their engines. It was a matter of pride to be first on the scene. One engine would be connected to a hydrant or cistern—often after a fist fight. Then, depending on how far away the fire was, other engines would line up to bring the water to a point where a hose could be trained on the blaze. Pumping was done by hand. Think of a handcar on a railroad track. The firemen would line up by the pump handles on both sides of their engine and begin pumping up-down-up-down as fast and as hard as they could. The pumping was so fast and furious that a fireman who lost his grip on the handle might have his arm broken by the force of the action.

The idea was to pump water from one engine to the next until it got to the fire. A company’s reputation depended on how fast and furiously it could pump. If Company A pumped water into Company B’s engine faster than Company B could pump it to Company C, the water pressure would build up to a point where the seals of Company B’s engine would fail and water would start spurting out like a garden sprinkler, soaking the engine and the firemen manning the pumps. When this happened, Company A could brag that it “washed” Company B. Which it literally had!

The volunteer fire companies were a victim of the Civil War. In 1864, they were replaced by professional firefighters equipped with horse-drawn steam engines.

But some things live on. The two young women who got into a scrap at McDonald’s were using a word dating back to the New York of the early nineteenth century. Its meaning hadn’t changed. The reporter got it right. “Washing” someone still meant beating up, defeating, overcoming, and utterly humiliating your rival.

In William Faulkner’s words, “The past is never dead—it is not even past.”

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