Idler colleague Colin Vineall queried the origin of the word shampoo a few days ago, while rejoicing in the good news that the English are no longer The Great Unwashed. It seems that a market research survey has found that the Poms use more soap, deodorant, and toothpaste than in any other nation in Europe.
Which gives the lie to the old story that the safest place to a 5 note in an English boarding house is under the soap.
This new-found cleanliness among the Brits is contrary to tradition. The Empire was not founded on roll-on deodorants and anti-perspirants, as is clear from a 1762 booklet for prospective foreign travellers.
“Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe and is peculiar to the Chinese.”
But fewer than 100 years later, no less an authority then, The Times was advising readers: “The patient should have the haircut and shampooed and the body well cleansed with carbolic soap.”
Nothing like cold showers and carbolic to make a nation strong and healthy. The Raj may not have been won by body lotion or bath oil, but it did contribute shampoo to the English language as well as to the English bathroom.
The word stems from the Hindi “campo” which means “to press.” It evolved through champoo, champou, and shampoe before reaching the currently accepted spelling. Originally, a shampoo was a massage – part of the ritual process of a Turkish bath.
The same 1762 guide to travellers observed: “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I would have been apprehensive of danger.”
Even then, the famous English fear of cleanliness was evident.
In the strange way that words have of changing meaning and connotation, shampoo acquired its current sense of cleaning the hair and scalp. In the process, the original sense of massage is now virtually obsolete.
When Dickens wrote in the 1836 Pickwick papers: “The other shampoo’d Mr Winkle with a heavy clothes brush,” he clearly was referring to a massage rather than a hair wash.
But there is no mistaking the newer meaning as used 40-odd years later in The Barber’s Shop magazine: “Brilliant with gas, and redolent of rich perfume are the modern shampooing saloons.”
If the current English passion for cleanliness continues, what new meanings could shampoo develop in the years to come?