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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

body wash

(1990’s | advertese | “liquid soap”)

In 1988 or thereabouts, a company named Genesis Research Corp. created a product they called “Body Wash.” That was not the first occurrence of the phrase, and if they trademarked the name, it did no good; “body wash” (sometimes “personal wash”) has always been treated as a common noun, not to be confused with “face wash” or “hand wash.” Judging from LexisNexis, I would say that by 1995 the expression was commonplace and most people had heard it, even if a few older people may not have been quite clear on what it meant. LexisNexis also indicates that writers didn’t feel compelled to define the term; it was customarily used without quotation marks or amplification. Early publicity for Genesis summarized the case for it: “Body Wash is an invention which allows the user to enjoy a luxurious stand-up bubble bath by using a hands-free soap dispersement while showering. Research indicates that use of Body Wash should result in a cost savings over the use of bar soap. Additionally, it eliminates the chance for transmission of bacterial infections, which could be passed to the next user of a bar of soap.” More luxurious, more sanitary, and cheaper, too? Well, maybe. And how did you manage “hands-free dispersement [sic]”? All the body wash I’ve ever seen comes in a bottle that has to be opened and squeezed, an operation I would not like to perform with my teeth or toes. Be all that as it may, we know now that body wash caught on like crazy. Within ten years it was no longer a specialty item, and it has been overtaking “bar soap” (the adjective was rarely required in my youth) in popularity ever since. Today even men use body wash, at least among the young.

“Personal care” products — anyway, those sold as aids to washing and grooming (distinct from vitamins, tampons, etc.) — have conquered the world since my boyhood. When I was young, most people’s “personal care” unguents consisted of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and deodorant, plus shaving cream and aftershave for men and maybe moisturizer for women. When my parents were kids, you washed your hair with soap and no one had ever heard of deodorant. Their grandparents made their own soap. Today you have to contend with lotions, gels, oils, scrubs, butters, serums . . . Oh, and you can’t just find plain old shampoo any more. It comes not only in many brands, but in dozens of varieties, concocted specially for every kind of hair, with or without conditioner (which also comes in dozens of varieties). If you’re an old-timer who just wants the same name-brand shampoo you started using forty years ago, it’s probably out there, but you’d better bring your high-powered reading glasses to the drugstore, because the minute differences in packaging won’t help you distinguish all the new-fangled kinds from the “classic” or “original” formula.

“Personal care” is a little old for the blog; it was established by the end of the 1970’s, at least as a modifier of “product.” As a noun phrase, it was already on the way to replacing “personal hygiene,” which sounded technical and antiseptic. “Personal hygiene” was something that one did at least partly for others, but “personal care” is something you do for yourself. (Yes, personal care products make you look and smell better, a benefit for those around you, but they also make you feel better in ways that are only indirectly perceptible to others.) “Personal hygiene” isn’t based on self-indulgence, but “personal care” is. Or maybe it’s more fundamental than that. From a Washington Post blog (May 21, 2016): “People are looking for an increased identity with the products, a personal relationship,” says Eleanor Dwyer, a beauty researcher for the market analysis firm Euromonitor. “There’s an idea that the products you use symbolize yourself.” Like artisanal food, the particular variation on soap that we prefer is supposed to serve as a window to our souls, affording us satisfaction while sending a laudable message to others as well. It’s not just about looking good any more. Beauty is no longer skin-deep.

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