Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Episode 188: Airing Dirty Laundry Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 188: Airing Dirty Laundry

Record Date: April 2, 2023

Air Date: April 5, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

You know Shauna, sometimes I think we are too nice on this show. We don’t fight enough on the show, and people want drama. So this week I think we’ll air our dirty laundry for all to see.


I don’t think that is going to improve our ratings. 


Fine. I suppose the least we can do now is to explore the phrase, airing your dirty laundry.


There are a few ways this phrase is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. They all mean the same thing, but I’ll cover each of them real quick.

To air ones laundry, or to air one’s dirty laundry means:


to reveal or discuss private matters, esp. of a scandalous or controversial nature

End Quote 

But as I researched this, I discovered “dirty laundry” was a newer use of the phrase. In fact, “dirty linen” was the original usage in English. 

And the next two definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary make use of the word linen, rather than laundry. And it makes use of wash, rather than air as “Air” also seems to have joined the phrase much later in its usage.

to wash one's dirty linen at home means: 


to say nothing in public about family affairs, disputes, or scandals. 

End Quote 

And the opposite,

to wash one's dirty linen in public means:


to discuss an essentially private matter, esp. a dispute or scandal, in public.

End Quote

And in fact, all of the early uses I could find referenced washing dirty linen, rather than airing dirty laundry. But the meaning has held true. 

The phrase is often attributed to Napoleon in 1815 with a similar french phrase. We see it in English before 1815, but it is possible it came to us through the French language. 

The first example I’ll use comes from 1809 and was identified by Gary Martin at the website. It is from Thomas Green Fessenden’s book Pills, Poetical, Political, and Philosophical.


The man has always had a great itch for scribbling, and has mostly been so fortunate as to procure somebody who pitied his ignorance, to 'wash his dirty linen'.

End Quote

Next up, from:


Here is another example, this one from 1867. If you look at almost anything online, this is often used as the first attestation. This is mostly due to most so-called word history and idiom sites just repeating what they saw on another website and not doing any actual research or even verifying what was written. 

But some of the sites may not have been able to find anything earlier because we are constantly digitizing historical works and every day more works are available to be used in research.  

So 1867, in Anthony Trollope’s The last chronicle of Barset (chapter XLIV)


I do not like to trouble you with my private affairs;—there is nothing, I think, so bad as washing one's dirty linen in public

End Quote 

Here is a long story in a paper about the importance of newspaper journalists and the work that they do. I’ll just read the opening paragraph. 

The phrase was so common in usage at this point that in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, he felt comfortable using a play on words with the phrase through the character Algernon by describing why Algernon does not want to go to a dinner party. 


I know perfectly well whom she will place me next to, to-night. She will place me next to Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public. 

End Quote 

Here’s a short thought out of the 

This next one is from St. Croix, an island in the Caribbean Sea and a territory of the United States. 


I actually didn’t find any examples of dirty laundry until the mid to late 1900s. So let’s go right ahead and jump into those modern uses after a quick word of thanks to our awesome sponsors.

A Quick Thank You

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Modern Uses

1982 Song

In 1982, Eagles singer Don Henley released his debut album, I Can’t Stand Still. The 6th track on that album is “Dirty Laundry”. This song is about media sensationalism and the focus of the media on negative events. 

Like any good congregation singing a long hymn, we’ll do the first and third verses


I make my livin' off the evenin' news

Just give me somethin', somethin' I can use

People love it when you lose

They love dirty laundry

We got the bubble-headed bleached-blonde, comes on at five

She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye

It's interesting when people die

Give us dirty laundry

End Quote

The chorus is just a repeat of kick em when their up, kick em when their down, kick em all around. 

2006 Movie

Dirty Laundry is a 2006 movie starring Rockmond Dunbar, Loretta Devine, and Jenifer Lewis. Here’s the synopsis from


A modern-day prodigal son story with a twist. It follows Patrick, a magazine writer, who seems to have the "perfect life," until one day, there is a knock at the door. On the other side stands a secret that brings him face to face with the traditional southern family he hasn't seen in over 10 years.

End Quote

Minor spoilers, the movie first aired at the Los Angeles Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. But don’t worry, that’s not the secret being referenced in the synopsis.

2013 Song

Dirty Laundry is the name of the 6th song on Kelly Rowland’s 2013 album Talk a Good Game. Probably a coincidence, but Don Henley’s song of the same name was also the 6th song on the album. Anyway, you may know Rowland from her solo work, or you may recognize her as a member of Destiny’s Child, the phenomenon that launched the careers of Rowland, Michelle Williams, and Beyonce Knowles. 

This one talks about Rowland’s life after her debut solo album in 2002, including envy over Beyonce’s success and Rowland’s relationship with a partner that was abusive. It’s a raw and emotional song. I’ll give you the shortest of snippets from the chorus.


When you're soaked in tears for years, it never airs out

When you make pain look this good it never wears out

This dirty laundry, this dirty laundry

End Quote

2015 Song

This next one is the 2nd track on the 2015 album Storyteller by Carrie Underwood. Dirty Laundry tells the story of a woman who has busted her man cheating. As I think maybe half of Carrie Underwood’s songs do.

Here’s the first verse.


That lipstick on your collar, well, it ain't my shade of pink

And I can tell by the smell of that perfume

It's like forty dollars too cheap

And there's a little wine stain on the pocket

Of your white cotton thread (ah-ah)

Well, you drink beer and whiskey, boy

And you know I don't drink red

End Quote

The chorus is full of clothing metaphors and ends with the line, 

All the Ajax in the world ain't gonna clean your dirty laundry 

2023 Book

Our penultimate example (which means second to last) is the debut novel of Disha Bose, Dirty Laundry. The tagline of this murder mystery is She was the perfect wife, with the perfect life. You would kill to have it.

Here is the lengthy synopsis from the publisher, 


Ciara Dunphy has it all—a loving husband, well-behaved children, and a beautiful home. Her circle of friends in their small Irish village go to her for tips about mothering, style, and influencer success—a picture-perfect life is easy money on Instagram. But behind the filters, reality is less polished.

Enter Mishti Guha: Ciara’s best friend. Ciara welcomed Mishti into her inner circle for being . . . unlike the other mothers in the group. Discontent in a marriage arranged for her by her parents back in Calcutta, Mishti now raises her young daughter in a country that is too cold, among children who look nothing like her. She wants what Ciara has—the ease with which she moves through the world—and, in that sense, Mishti might be exactly like the other mothers.

And there’s earth mother Lauren Doyle: born, bred, and the butt of jokes in their village. With her disheveled partner and children who run naked in the yard, they’re mostly a happy lot, though ostracized for being the singular dysfunction in Ciara’s immaculate world. When Lauren finds an unlikely ally in Mishti, she decides that her days of ridicule are over.

Then Ciara is found murdered in her own pristine home, and the house of cards she’d worked so hard to build comes crumbling down. Everyone seems to have something to gain from Ciara’s death, so if they don’t want the blame, it may be the perfect time to air their enemies’ dirty laundry.

In this dazzling debut novel, Disha Bose revolutionizes age-old ideas of love and deceit. What ensues is the delicious unspooling of a group of women desperate to preserve themselves.

End Quote 

And finally, a meme. This one makes the rounds every once in a while and I enjoy the juxtaposition, or contrast, of the two concepts mentioned. It takes the form of a single panel greeting card and says something to the effect of:

Wrap Up

Washing your dirty linen is an interesting concept. On the one hand, I don’t want to share all my struggles with the world. But on the other hand I don’t want to keep things bottled up and hidden, either. So there is probably some middle ground to be had. So maybe it’s good to air my dirty laundry on the back porch instead of the front porch. But some people are just open books. And I have great respect for that. But as Kermit says in the “none of my business” meme format


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website


It’s poll time!

Recently, we asked our Patrons, what kind of shower curtain do you have now?

The top answer was “Something with fun design”, closely followed by “something with a fun saying on it”.

Mary said,


I got my years ago when I moved in at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It's a soft pattern and matches all the other stuff. I got the towels that matched and still have the rug. The towels are no longer fancy and the rug is a bit worse for the wear but it's washable and is hanging in there. 

End Quote

Very practical.


Jan is equally practical:


Nothing fancy, just whatever Target had with a design on it that matched the colors of the bath mat. 

End Quote

I, on the other hand, am less practical. My main bathroom has a shower curtain that says, “Get Naked” on it. I don’t remember where I bought it, but somewhere online.


When we asked this question, I was staying in a hotel. That room had doors. I both love and don't particularly like doors for showers. They take more consistent work to stay clean... but they never swoop around and touch me while I'm showering.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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