“What is elegance? Soap and water!” – Cecil Beaton

You, as my readers, probably already know how I like to think about words. You may, in fact, be of the opinion that I like to think about and discuss words altogether too much. I should inform you anti-worders, despite how much I appreciate your reading my blog, that this is not likely to change. Anyway, on to the soap.

What? Yes, I want to talk about soap. I’ve been doing some thinking about soap, and the phrases we use that revolve around soap. There’s some pretty obvious ones like “Soap up,” (meaning to cover something or someone in soap) and “wash your mouth out with soap,” (which again refers to soap’s ability to clean things up. Or to taste terrible, I can’t remember.)

If you want to know more about soap and how it is made, here‘s the wikipedia page. The basics, though, are these: “Soaps for cleansing are obtained by treating vegetable or animal oils and fats with a strongly alkaline solution… brings about a chemical reaction known as saponisfication.” So there, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about soap. You’re welcome. Also, this was probably unnecessary to making my point. I’ll get back to the words.

“Soap Opera” is a phrase used to describe a campy television drama, and believe it or not does actually derive its name from actual soap. These programs certainly aren’t known for their cleanliness, and no, I’m not trying to draw some weird connection between daytime television and fatty acids. “Soap Operas” were given their name because no one watches television during the daytime, and therefore the only advertising the networks could procure was for soap products. Soap is such a commonly-held necessity that its advertising had never garnered much weight, meaning these ads were cheap. So, “soap” is a reference to how poorly funded these shows are, and “opera” is probably a reference to how overly dramatic the acting is (I certainly doubt it’s at all connected to their capacity for musical performance.)

“Soap Box” is another common term (and if you remembered I used it in my last post, you get bonus points) which most people know refers to a person’s tendency to loudly express their opinions in a public forum. You may have also heard “standing on my soap box,” which is even less metaphorical and, yes, does refer to standing on boxes that used to contain soap. As mentioned with “Soap Opera,” soap is a really common item and so it was pretty easy for someone to acquire a box and give themselves an extra foot or so of height for shouting at others. I can only assume that Soap boxes were fairly sturdy, and therefore a good choice for standing on. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to find a soap box to express ourselves any more; we can just use the equally effective tool, Twitter.

“Soft soap” is a less widely-known idiom which isn’t a reference to the brand (though the brand may have chosen their name for the idiom?) It is, however, a reference to leaving the by-product glycerol/glycerin in the newly made soap as a softening agent (those of you who read the Wikipedia article saw this coming.) To “soft soap” someone is to coddle them, or make a subject more palatable. It also mean to sweet-talk or flatter a person. This idiom is probably vanishing as “softer” soaps are becoming the norm, as well as how most people don’t need to make their own soap any more.

“No soap” is probably even more of an obscure phrase, and probably my favorite on the list. This is not a term for a dirty person or a bathroom lamentation. “No soap” is actually referring to the same concept as “no dice,” meaning “I can’t do that,” “I can’t help you,” or “It’s not going to happen.” I have no evidence for why “dice” has outlived “soap,” but I imagine it has something to do with how gambling is still a situational activity and soap is pretty much available everywhere. In essence, lots of people might come up with “no dice” but very few people are in a position of “no soap.”

I’m not gonna soft soap you, there just aren’t that many phrases that use this word. I found these examples interesting and enjoyable too, but no soap, there aren’t any more.


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