The idiom “wash one’s dirty linen in public” is used to describe someone who is discussing private or sensitive matters openly. It suggests the inappropriate revelation of personal affairs or disputes to the public.
Often, this idiom is invoked when someone is sharing private or embarrassing information in a public setting, which might be considered indiscreet or in poor taste.
For example, if someone is discussing family issues loudly in a cafe, they might be accused of “washing their dirty linen in public.”
Wash One’s Dirty Linen in Public Idiom Origins
The term has its roots in European customs and the literal act of washing dirty clothing.
Google’s historical data project has found its first usage somewhere around the 1910s, as shown in the following graph:
Here’s an overview of its origin:
- Laundry Practices: In earlier times, washing clothes was a communal activity. Families would gather by rivers or communal washing areas to clean their garments. Dirty clothes, or “linen,” were a direct reflection of one’s household’s cleanliness and hygiene.
- Private Affairs: Washing one’s dirty clothing was considered a private affair, and it was seen as improper or embarrassing to air dirty or stained garments in a public setting where others could see. As such, the act of publicly displaying or discussing one’s “dirty linen” became synonymous with revealing private or sensitive matters to others.
In modern times, when someone is said to “wash their dirty linen in public,” it means they are openly discussing personal matters or disputes that might be better kept private.
The chart below from Google indicates that this phrase, while not as commonly used as some idioms, still maintains a presence in modern dialogue, especially in contexts emphasizing discretion.
10 Examples in a Sentence
- “Why must they always wash their dirty linen in public? Their arguments should remain private.”
- “The celebrity’s interview seemed like she was washing her dirty linen in public.”
- “It’s not good to wash your dirty linen in public; such matters should be discussed privately.”
- “The couple had a habit of washing their dirty linen in public, causing discomfort for friends and family.”
- “I wish politicians would not wash their dirty linen in public during election campaigns.”
- “Avoid washing your dirty linen in public; it can harm your reputation.”
- “The family feud became even more complicated when they began washing their dirty linen in public.”
- “It’s never a good idea to wash your dirty linen in public; it can lead to misunderstandings.”
- “The board meeting turned awkward when members started washing their dirty linen in public.”
- “She always preferred to keep personal matters private, avoiding washing her dirty linen in public.”
1. Air one’s dirty laundry
Definition: To discuss private matters publicly.
In a Sentence: “He decided to air his dirty laundry during the family gathering, causing quite a stir.”
2. Spill the beans
Definition: To reveal a secret.
In a Sentence: “She spilled the beans about the surprise party.”
3. Open a can of worms
Definition: To bring up a complicated problem or issue.
In a Sentence: “Discussing the inheritance will just open a can of worms.”
4. Let the cat out of the bag
Definition: To disclose a secret.
In a Sentence: “I accidentally let the cat out of the bag about the proposal.”
5. Bare one’s soul
Definition: To reveal one’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
In a Sentence: “He bared his soul during the therapy session.”
6. Put on blast
Definition: To publicly criticize or reveal information about someone.
In a Sentence: “She put her ex on blast on social media.”
7. Show one’s hand
Definition: To reveal one’s plans or intentions.
In a Sentence: “By making that move, he showed his hand early in the negotiations.”
8. Lay one’s cards on the table
Definition: To be open and honest.
In a Sentence: “It’s time to lay our cards on the table and discuss our real intentions.”
9. Kiss and tell
Definition: To share private or intimate details about a relationship.
In a Sentence: “He promised he wouldn’t kiss and tell, but the details of their date were all over school the next day.”
10. Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
Definition: To openly display one’s emotions.
In a Sentence: “She always wears her heart on her sleeve, making it easy to know how she feels.”
11. Open up a Pandora’s box
Definition: To take an action that may have unforeseen, negative consequences.
In a Sentence: “By introducing that topic, he opened up a Pandora’s box of issues.”
12. Give the game away
Definition: To reveal a secret or plan.
In a Sentence: “His nervous glances gave the game away.”
13. Blow the whistle
Definition: To expose wrongdoing, typically in a public setting.
In a Sentence: “The employee blew the whistle on the company’s illegal activities.”
14. Pull back the curtain
Definition: To reveal what is hidden or kept secret.
In a Sentence: “The documentary pulled back the curtain on the challenges faced by the community.”
15. Put one’s cards on the table
Definition: To be open and honest about one’s intentions.
In a Sentence: “During the meeting, she put her cards on the table and expressed her concerns.”