I was washing the dishes earlier today (one of my least favorite chores) and I started to think about the word “clean” along with the word “cleanse” and how they mean pretty much the same thing don’t they, or do they have a difference in meaning, and why do we have both words, and what’s the essential difference between the two words? Is “cleanse” an archaic form? And if so, why do we still use it?
Thank goodness for that ultimate reference tool, the internet, to stop these spinning questions in my head!
First I did a google search, and found this information from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms: “Clean is the word in common and literal use for the removal of foreign matter (as dirt, litter, and debris) typically by washing, sweeping, dusting, or clearing away… Cleanse in this relation seldom wholly loses some hint of its basic notion of making morally or spiritually pure: it is, therefore, the term of choice when the matter to be removed is or is felt as foul, polluting, or noxious or the action is rather one of purifying than of merely restoring to order, freshness, or neatness… Unlike clean, cleanse is common in essentially metaphoric extension in which it always retains the suggestion of removing what is vile, harmful, or obnoxious…”
From that I was reminded of the spiritual use of “cleanse,” which feels rather obvious in retrospect. Maybe this experience of looking it up will cement the concept in my memory. Actually, this was probably one of those cases of knowing how to use a word, but not being able to define it, like the meaning only existed at an unconscious level of my brain. Isn’t it strange how that happens? Does that happen to other people? Sometimes I’m perfectly confident using a word in conversation or in writing, but if I was asked to define it I would be stumped. And then when I do look it up I find that I’ve been using it correctly after all.
Anyway, the Dictionary of Synonyms is an interesting and exciting book to have discovered through my clean/cleanse distinction quest, and I’ll probably seek it out again for similar questions. It seems more useful than just a basic thesaurus. Or has a more refined purpose, anyway.
I also logged into my school email account so that I could access the Oxford English Dictionary and read old English usage examples and such. The OED seconded what the Dictionary of Synonyms had said, of course, and also gave me a few more examples of differences between “clean” and “cleanse.” “Clean” can be used to mean “streamlined.” It can also be combined with other words: “clean out” is to clean by emptying, “clean up” has financial connotations, etc. “Cleanse,” on the other hand has the distasteful relationship with ethnic cleansing, its purification meaning corrupted by prejudice. Yuck.
Again, I knew all these meanings already, but it was interesting to read about them again. It was satisfying to have a thought, a question, and then to go and answer it for myself.