One Word, Many Definitions

Today, because I am cleaning my apartment and thinking about words, I would like to wax eloquent for a moment on the word “clean.”

Now, obviously, this word has two basic meanings: the adjective version (something is clean) or the verb version (someone needs to clean).  We can all tell when something is the opposite of clean (filthy, gross, dirty) and most people would say clean is “not dirty”.  In fact, the dictionary definition is one of those “without” definitions – without dirt, without impurities, etc.

The reality is that everyone’s definition of clean is a little bit different, especially when it relates to their homes or their workspaces.

Sometimes I define cleaning my apartment as putting away clutter, loading the dishwasher and wiping out the bathroom sink.  (This is the “it looks clean” version.)  Other times cleaning involves vacuuming and getting out some actual cleaning solutions.  (This is the “get rid of disgustingness” version.)  When I was a kid and my mom asked us to clean, we had two definitions: clean and Grandma-clean.  (Obviously Grandma-clean involved a lot more effort, so we always asked to be on the safe side.)  Given the fact that I saw this concept in a cartoon later in life, I’m guessing that others had a Grandma-clean concept at their houses, too.

Clean is a hard concept to define, as it is somewhat abstract.  The “without” concept makes it especially tricky; defining something by the lack of something else is like trying to turn a lack of a behavior into a habit.  You are really more successful if you replace it with another habit.  Maybe clean shouldn’t be the lack of dirt, but the presence of empty surfaces.  That makes it a lot easier to quantify how much you’ve cleaned, and in practice, isn’t that really the goal?

Ok, now it’s time for me to return to my creation of empty surfaces.  🙂


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. deshipley
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 15:27:28

    Back when my sisters and I were being told by our father to clean up our old playspace (I pause to wax nostalgic about that basement), Dad would state clearly that he wanted to be able to see more of the floor.
    In honor of the letter of the law, we relocated our junk to piles by the walls or atop whatever raised surface we had available. Clean? Hardly. But there was room to walk again!


  2. stvsgrls
    Oct 03, 2011 @ 16:49:30

    Clean is the restoration of an area to it’s original state, free of clutter, soil and any films that decrease friction, reflectivity or promote bacterial growth.


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