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We use phrases and sayings every day to express ourselves. There are so many of them and they’re so embedded in our language that quite a lot of the time we don’t even realise that we’re doing it. If something is below the belt it’s not very fair, and that phrase’s origin comes from boxing and means not very fair because punching below the waist was seen as cheating. Ditto a low-blow. Some things produce more phrases than others; lots of phrase origins are rooted in the weather for example. The laundry room is another place that has certainly given rise to a fair few phrases.
For example, a phrase that is easily identifiable as coming from the laundry room is “it’ll all come out in the wash”. That one’s pretty self-explanatory. Another phrase that’s not immediately obvious as one from the wash is “to look wrung out”, which takes its origin from the drying of clothes. Clothes that have been screwed up and wrung out to remove excess water can look small and wrinkled and tired. Somewhere along the line someone must have turned to someone else, seen that they looked a tad exhausted, and been reminded of the way their laundry looked.
Our TV soap operas also take part of their name from the laundry. In this case it’s because laundry soap manufacturers used to sponser the radio and TV drama serials which were broadcast during the day and aimed at housewives. Adverts for the detergents would be aired during the shows. Detergent + melodrama = soap opera.
The soap opera story is one that most people know, but to have lots of irons in the fire is one that, thanks to our electric irons, has had its origin somewhat lost in the steam of modern conveniences. Go back a hundred years or so and irons were heated by putting them in the fireplace. The trouble being that they’d cool off before too long at which point you’d need another iron. The more irons you had in the fire, the less time you needed to wait before you could do some more ironing and the more you could get through. Hence why having lots of irons in the fire refers to someone who is very busy and has lots going on!
However, not all laundry phrases are so complimentary. While you might want to be referred to as someone who’s very busy, you wouldn’t want to be called a scrubber. In times gone by some washerwomen and scullery maids, in order to support themselves, did a little sideline work as prostitutes. Scrubber was a slang way of referring to these women, despite that fact doing the laundry is a kind and helpful thing that most people really appreciate. So really, being a scrubber ought to mean you’re a wonderful person.