laundromat

Last Tuesday evening we spent an hour and a half sitting in a German laundromat.

Well, OK, we did go out and grab some falafel while our wash was going. Front-loaders lock, so you have some security for the duration of the cycle. But in the main we were sitting watching the clothes go ’round (and reading), while other customers saw to their similar situations. One young bearded dude stared out the window and then, when the time came, folded his laundry with exquisite precision. A young woman’s little dog kept dragging around the chair to which it was leashed.

When you’re on vacation for two weeks and travelling through several cities and, indeed, countries (FranceBelgiumNetherlandsGermanyDenmarkSweden), you have to pack light, and there comes a time after a week or so when your few items of clothing really need a wash. For us, that time came in Hamburg. We had planned it that way: Hamburg would be the ease-off city, less exciting than those before or after. We were in a very nice hotel, converted from a 19th-century brick water tower – of course we could have paid them something above 100 euros to wash our stuff for us, but no, we could not have, thank you, not when we could spend 90 otherwise unclaimed minutes and a mere 5 euros. So after a day trip to Bremen we took a bit of time to walk down to the closest laundromat and freshen our togs.

In Germany, it is not a laundromat, of course. German uses Germanic morphemes in many places where English has preferred Latin- and Greek-derived bits. Our lavendry was a Wascherei. But I’m not writing in German about German words here, and the place I was in was a laundromat as we know it: rows of automatic washers and rows of automatic dryers. The only real variant was that you paid at a point on the wall and entered into it which machine you had stuffed your clothes into, rather than slipping coins into slots in a sliding tray in the front of the machine and then kerchung pushing them in to get it rolling.

You may have noted that the German word Wascherei has a capital. This is just because it is a noun. In English, it would have to be a proper noun to get a capital – for example, a trademarked name. The irony here is that Laundromat actually is a trademarked word. Westinghouse trademarked it in 1943 as a brand name for an automated washing machine. The vision of rows of clean white machines operating efficiently may match stereotypes of German efficiency. But actually German laundromats are about the same as American ones, Hamburg is a graffiti-covered city and a not especially clean one, German trains are less clean, modern, fast, and timely than those of their neighbours to the south, west, and north… and laundromats are a classically American invention, even though the word laundromat draws on a word that has a German reflex.

The word in question is automat. In German, Automat is an automaton, a machine that acts of its own volition (or at least its own apparent impetus). The source is Greek, αὐτόματον, from roots to do with self and thinking. In English, an automat was also first of all (by 1676) an automaton, then – in the US – by 1895 an automatic dispensing machine (e.g., a candy machine or similar dispenser). By 1902 it named a restaurant or cafeteria where you get the food from such machines.

So the leap was an easy one from the washing machine Laundromat to the establishment laundromat wherein you may use automated washing machines. Within a decade the capital was lower-casing and the sense was shifting. But not everyone calls the place that; it can also be a laundrette or (another trademark) Launderette. And the types of machines and establishments existed before the name did; in the 1930s a coin-operated laundry was a washateria. Like a cafeteria with automated machines. Like an automat, in other words.

Oh, and the laundro part? From the Latin lav root plus the same enda/anda suffix you see in agenda and propaganda, via lavendry and lavender – a name that was also applied to a plant historically often used in washing. Ever wonder why lavender is such a bathroom scent? Tradition.

Not that laundromats ever smell of lavender. I’m not sure exactly what is used to scent that powdered soap that is sold in them, but whatever it is, they smell of that. Plus perhaps the falafel et cetera that people may be eating as they watch their wash wash.

It was good falafel, too. Just the kind you go to Germany for.

2 responses to “laundromat

  1. Something we have shared: doing laundry in Hamburg.

  2. beyondwords72

    Thanks for triggering an old memory. Back in the 1960s one of the requirements for my master’s degree was a translation exam. I chose German to English. I remember two things about that exam.

    One: I took the exam holding an icepack on one eye, which left only one hand for dealing with my bilingual dictionary, the text, and my writing paper on a student desk. (Earlier that day an eye doctor had removed a piece of a matchhead removed from that eye. Don’t ask!)

    The other: I was stumped by one word–“Automat “–and left a blank space in my translation. I didn’t find “Automat” in my dictionary and couldn’t figure out the meaning from the context. I got excellent marks on my translation, but the person who marked it made a snide comment that I should have figured out that “Automat” was “automaton.” “Automaton” had not been in my English vocabulary, but it is now! However, I have completely forgotten German.

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