Stop saying “laundry list” in meetings if you want to avoid being strangled with a sweatshirt, towel, pillowcase or undergarment.

December 24, 2010 at 4:54 pm 2 comments

When did people start saying “laundry list” when they simply mean “list”? Of the thousands of times I have heard this phrase uttered in the corridors of corporate America, I cannot think of one example where “laundry” contributed a trace of meaning. This is not merely a personal linguistic grudge. I stand confidently alongside Strunk and White, who wrote:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

This is not a subject on which reasonable people can disagree.

What is a laundry list anyway? And who makes one? Not your dry cleaner. When you drop off your clothes, the person behind the counter writes down something like “9 shirts, 5 slacks,” which is not a list but a categorization. And it is not just laundry; it is also dry cleaning–so what you actually wind up with is a laundry count. Hotels don’t make (or ask for) laundry lists either. Instead, they’ll give you a form on which you can fill in the quantity of specific items for whose cleaning you wish to be shockingly overcharged.

I am tempted to consign the laundry list to the realm of myth. It’s a big world, though. Perhaps somewhere a few people are squatting in front of their hampers and scribbling madly with stubby yellow pencils. Should you meet one of them, do the kind thing and recommend an appropriate medication. On the other hand, should you find yourself in the presence of someone who says “laundry list” when he means nothing more than “list,” I am reasonably certain that the ghosts of Strunk and White would not object if you chose to do him harm.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. smelly solutions « thissimpleday  |  May 7, 2012 at 12:31 am

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  • 2. Jesse  |  August 24, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Most people don’t wash a shirt when it’s only the one that’s dirty. The term laundry list refers to lower-priority items that tend to pile up, much like laundry does, only to be dealt with when one feels the sum of the requirements equals enough of a push to be motivated to finally address the collection of issues.

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