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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a liquid soap-like preparation for cleaning the hair

The best etymological stories are always those that take you somewhere else completely. Case in point, a shampoo was originally a massage.

So how did that happen?

In an account of A Voyage To The West Indies published in 1762, an unknown “officer in the service of the East India Company” wrote the earliest known description of seemingly one of the most everyday of activities:

Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe … which I once had the curiosity to go through, and for which I paid but a trifle … He [the shampooer] first placed me in a large chair; then began to beat with both his hands very fast upon all parts of my body. He next stretched out my arms and legs, and gave them several sudden pulls that racked my joints; then he got my arm upon his shoulder, and hauled me sideways a good way over the chair; and as suddenly gave my head a twitch or jerk round that I thought he should have put my neck out of joint.

If you’re thinking that that description doesn’t sound like any shampoo you’ve ever used, you’d be quite right: this mid-eighteenth century shampoo was a massage.

The word shampoo was brought to English attention by explorers and merchants who travelled and traded their way around Asia at the height of the colonial era. The word itself derives from čampo, a Hindi word literally meaning ‘press’ or ‘squeeze’, which in turn probably has its origins in an even older Sanskrit word meaning ‘to knead’ or ‘pound’.

But how did we get from an intense (and somewhat painful-sounding) full-body massage to a word simply meaning ‘to wash the hair’?

Although the author of the extract above makes no mention of it, traditional Indian massages like these typically involved the use of fragrant soaps and lathers that would be used to cleanse both the skin and the hair of the person being massaged. British and European colonialists living in India who had acquired a liking for these kinds of treatments, brought their experiences back to Europe when they returned home—and with them came these soaps, and the word shampoo.

Over time, the association between shampooing and massaging steadily disappeared, a demise no doubt hastened by the naturally more reserved Brits (and the even more reserved Victorians, who likely did not share the colonialists’ enthusiasm for being rubbed and pummelled to pieces while naked).

Ultimately, by the mid nineteenth century, shampoo had begun to be used all but exclusively to refer to washing and fragrancing the hair specifically, with the earliest reference to a cleansing liquid detergent being called a shampoo dating from 1838.

From The Accidental Dictionary, AVAILABLE NOW

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