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December 24, 2010 2:46 PM   Subscribe

What is the definition of "dish detergent"?

If one were to put "dish detergent" on a grocery list, what would you expect your shopper to purchase?

A) Liquid, such as this, to use OUTSIDE of a dishwashing appliance.

B) Powdered, gel, or tab product, such as this, for use INSIDE a dishwashing appliance.

C) neither, some other option


D) Either, the phrase is not specific enough.

Interested in American English speakers primarily, but would be open to hearing what other cultures have to say on this very important issue.
posted by citywolf to Writing & Language (45 answers total)
In my house we call the liquid stuff dish soap and the powder stuff dishwasher detergent. Dish soap is for hand washing and dishwasher detergent is for the dishwasher.

If you said dish detergent I would thing you meant the stuff you use to hand wash dishes.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:51 PM on December 24, 2010

I would assume that you meant the stuff to go inside the dishwasher. I agree with TooFewShoes about the different terms, but I think that "dish detergent" is closer to "dishwasher detergent" than it is to "dish soap," so I'd buy the dishwasher stuff. Actually, I'd probably try to clarify with the list-maker, but if I couldn't get a clarification, I'd buy detergent for the dishwasher. I have never heard liquid dish soap called detergent.
posted by decathecting at 2:54 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: B for sure. "Detergent" of any sort is used in a machine.
posted by sharding at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I too would assume a powder or gel for a dishwashing machine rather than liquid soap for handwashing dishes.
posted by elizardbits at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2010

B. But it's kind of ambiguous, so clarifying would be ideal.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:57 PM on December 24, 2010

dish detergent == hand-washing dish soap == dish soap

dishwasher detergent == dishwasher soap (either liquid or powder or tablet)
posted by fifilaru at 2:57 PM on December 24, 2010

I would probably figure option a was what was wanted (but I also call it dish soap). If I wanted to be sure to get option b, I would make sure to specify dishWASHER soap/detergent.
posted by leahwrenn at 2:58 PM on December 24, 2010

Definitely A) Liquid, such as this, to use OUTSIDE of a dishwashing appliance.

Dishwashers are very unusual in rental flats/houses here (Australia), so unless the person writing the list owns their house or is renting at the higher end of the market, they will be washing their dishes by hand.
posted by with the singing green stars as our guide at 3:02 PM on December 24, 2010

B. "Detergent" is used with machines, "soap" is not.
posted by tristeza at 3:07 PM on December 24, 2010

Best answer: In the unlikely event that I was buying stuff off a North American person's shopping list, and couldn't clarify what it was they wanted, I'd buy them washing up liquid. At least that way they'd be able to wash the stuff up by hand even if they didn't want to, whereas if they didn't have a dishwasher, a pack of dishwasher tablets wouldn't be terribly useful.
posted by Lebannen at 3:11 PM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dish = handwashing, dishwasher = machine. No idea why. I'm more likely to confuse people with requests for "washer detergent" which does not identify whether I want stuff for the dishwasher or clothes washer.
posted by catlet at 3:11 PM on December 24, 2010

Definitely A (English speaker, always lived in U.S.)
posted by ninekinds at 3:12 PM on December 24, 2010

dish detergent == hand-washing dish soap == dish soap

dishwasher detergent == dishwasher soap (either liquid or powder or tablet)

This is what I interpret that as, but it is kind of ambiguous. To me, the presence of the word "washer" (or the absence of it in the former) is what would guide me. In case there's some sort of regional variation, I spent the first 20 years of my life in the upper Midwest and the last 20 years in New England.

That said, I should make sure that I'm clear if/when I write a shopping list for Mr. metarkest...
posted by metarkest at 3:14 PM on December 24, 2010

count me as another who would rely on the presence or absence of the word "washer" in the description.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:26 PM on December 24, 2010

D) The phrase is not specific enough.

Which is my grocery lists for my husband say things like, "dish soap for doing dishes in sink" or "dishwasher detergent with bleach, for dishwasher."
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:27 PM on December 24, 2010

"Dish detergent" is an aberration in that it's a cross of the two most common phrases: "dish soap" and "dishwasher detergent". I would expect the shopper to question me if I said that, or to make a judgment based on their knowledge of whether I owned a dishwasher.

I vote "not enough information to reliably buy the correct product."
posted by mikeh at 3:31 PM on December 24, 2010

I'd very much assume B, for tristeza's reason: soap is a cleaning product; detergent goes inside machines (ignoring the technical meanings of the terms). "Dish detergent" is therefore something that goes inside a machine to wash dishes. It's also a shortened version of "dishwasher detergent," and people tend to abbreviate on grocery lists.

But I'd assume that differences in interpretations tend to stem from how common dishwashers are in your area/circle of friends/life acquaintances. I'm used to dishwashers often being around, so I'm used to the concept of purchasing dishwasher detergent. If I didn't have much dishwasher experience and believed those around me didn't either, I might not really consider dishwasher detergent as a possibility, because who uses that stuff?
posted by zachlipton at 3:34 PM on December 24, 2010

I agree that it depends on the presence or absence of the word "washer." I grew up in Seattle.
posted by Rula Lenska at 3:35 PM on December 24, 2010

A) Liquid, such as this, to use OUTSIDE of a dishwashing appliance.

To me, "detergent" is used to clean "things," so for hand washing dishes, it's simply "dish detergent." However, I find "dishwasher detergent" to be too long (plus my brain thinks that that sounds like something that you would use to clean a dishwasher), so I always call it "dishwasher stuff," both out loud and on lists.
posted by eunoia at 3:36 PM on December 24, 2010

I'm Canadian and I have to go with D. A detergent is technically a cleaning agent, and technically not soap, because a detergent is not made from fats or lye. A detergent does not necessarily have to be used in a machine either. is even more specific:

1. any of a group of synthetic, organic, liquid or water-soluble cleaning agents that, unlike soap, are not prepared from fats and oils, are not inactivated by hard water, and have wetting-agent and emulsifying-agent properties.

2. a similar substance that is oil-soluble and capable of holding insoluble foreign matter in suspension, used in lubricating oils, dry-cleaning preparations, etc.

There could even be a legal definition for where you live for product manufacturers; it could be that soap doesn`t have to be made from fats or lye. It's not really a stupid bet. People who work with taxonomies have these discussions all the time :-) I remember the day we had to figure out the search term for sex toys. I prudely suggested "marital aids" but my co-worker disagreed on the grounds that unmarried people use them too :-D Sex toys it was!
posted by Calzephyr at 3:42 PM on December 24, 2010

I'd expect the handwashing kind and would have said "dishwasher detergent" otherwise.
posted by Gianna at 3:48 PM on December 24, 2010

I'm from the southern US. I've always said "dish detergent" and "dishwashing liquid" for the hand-washing soap and "dishwasher soap" for the dishwashing machine.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:53 PM on December 24, 2010

B) Powdered, gel, or tab product, such as this, for use INSIDE a dishwashing appliance.

"Dish Soap" is the liquid for handwashing. To me, detergent implies the use of a machine. (I'm from Seattle.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:07 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

My take: Detergent is for machines. Dish detergent goes in the dishwasher. Laundry detergent goes in the clothes washer. Dish soap is for hand washing.

Husband says: he'd get what I call "dish soap." Good thing I always write "dishwasher detergent" when making our shopping lists.
posted by galadriel at 4:11 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Puzzled by all the people who insist that detergents are only for machines, I went and looked at two bottles of Joy dishwashing liquid. An old bottle says it's "Dishwashing Detergent," while a new one says "Dishwashing Liquid" - but it also says "Detergente Liquido Para Platos."

It's detergent.

I would say A is the correct interpretation.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:30 PM on December 24, 2010

I would assume A (which I call dish soap). If you want dishwasher soap, say "dishwasher". Born/raised in the US.
posted by deborah at 4:34 PM on December 24, 2010

I would assume A. Born/raised US (California). I suspect I lean toward A because I've never had a dishwasher in my life - I'll bet people who grew up with dishwashers would be inclined to choose B.
posted by chez shoes at 4:47 PM on December 24, 2010

I think I would probably assume that you meant dishwasher detergent, option B. But if you have both a sink and a dishwasher, yes, this requires clarification.
posted by desuetude at 5:09 PM on December 24, 2010

D -- I'd want to ask what they meant. If I *had* to buy blind, then B.
posted by tyllwin at 5:14 PM on December 24, 2010

I'm adding my vote for D. I originally thought of the handwashing variety, then read a little bit further and thought, "Doh, I'm wrong," then Googled the term and ended up with No Clear Answer.

To do a little more wishy-washy hand-wringing, I'd actually expect dishwasher detergent to be listed on a shopping list by specific type ("dishwasher gel") or brand name ("Electrasol"). I think I got in trouble once, actually, for bringing home the wrong type of "dish liquid" once :)
posted by Several Unnamed Sources at 5:24 PM on December 24, 2010

A, because we buy B in huge econo-bulk sizes, which isn't generally a purchase that you would put on a shopping list for someone else without other modifiers (brand, subset within the brand, size of box, etc.). Whereas any old small bottle of A is good enough in a pinch.
posted by anaelith at 5:52 PM on December 24, 2010

I would assume it's the liquid for doing dishes in the sink. Which is, by the way, detergent. My husband calls that "dish soap," which drives me bonkers, because it's detergent. I call it "washing-up liquid," which drives HIM bonkers. Dishwasher detergent, we call dishwasher detergent. Or "dishwasher stuff."
posted by KathrynT at 6:07 PM on December 24, 2010

B. To me, detergent implies use in a machine, as others mentioned above. I know that's not really accurate, but unless I was put on guard for some reason, I'd get B.
posted by ZeroDivides at 6:29 PM on December 24, 2010

Detergent would make me assume machine. Though Mrs. Maxwelton, knowing me, would carefully explain exactly what she wanted and then try to time a text message to reach me as I'm in the aisle.
posted by maxwelton at 7:58 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

D, but possibly because I've always known the technical definition of "detergent" (Yes! Always! I knew it in the womb! Or at least I knew it when I was little kid, I don't remember why I knew this. Probably because I'm a dork.) I live in and grew up in New England, but a more determining factor may be that I've also never lived in a house with a dishwasher.
posted by XMLicious at 8:14 PM on December 24, 2010

Either. It's pretty difficult to find a specific, totally clear phrase for dish soap. Unless it specifically said "dishwasher" I'd still have to ask for clarification.

I eventually gave up and started calling them "Dawn" and "Cascade."
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:57 PM on December 24, 2010

I'm from the Northeast. I'd assume you meant liquid dish soap and if I were doing your shopping for you would probably try to clarify anyhow and would base my decision on whether you had a dishwasher or not. So I don't think it's totally unclear, but after reading this thread, it clearly is.

I usually go by brand names [Joy, Dawn, Ecover = liquid dish soaps; Cascade, whatever else = dishwasher detergents]
posted by jessamyn at 10:03 PM on December 24, 2010

For me, if they had machine then B. Detergent goes in machines.
posted by dame at 11:17 PM on December 24, 2010

I use them interchangeably, but I don't have a dishwasher so there's no confusion.
posted by Sara C. at 4:08 AM on December 25, 2010

American here, and the first image that came to mind is a green bottle of the stuff I'd use to wash dishes by hand. But looking at the other comments, I'd be compelled to wonder if I was supposed to get the stuff for the dishwasher.
posted by Busoni at 4:13 AM on December 25, 2010

If you said dish detergent, I would assume soap to wash dishes in the sink, but find it a rather odd phrasing --a little old fashioned, with some leeway for a powdered interpretation. Basically, "detergent" would hint to me that it might be something unusual like powder, but my mind would still leap to liquid because literally no one I know uses powdered soap in their sink. However, my assumption would be considerably biased by the fact that I do not have a dishwasher. I would not be at all surprised if interpretation of the term is in the process of changing due to the relatively new (last 20 years or so) prevalence of dishwashers and the dropoff in powder usage on hand-cleaned dishes.
posted by Ys at 9:59 AM on December 25, 2010


I would be confused by the mixed phrasing and ask. or maybe I'd just get both.

Actually, what I'd do is buy some borax, washing soda, and ivory soap so I could make either one.
posted by cmoj at 10:27 AM on December 25, 2010

A. Because if it doesn't say dishwasher, it doesn't go in the dishwasher.
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:48 PM on December 25, 2010

Yeah, this is for dishes, not the dishwasher. If it were for the dishwasher, you'd have said so, right?
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:56 AM on December 26, 2010

I'm born and raised in America, but have lived in Europe and Africa for 12 years. I'm comfortable with those who tend towards 'detergent' being for the machine, except just recently on the blue, I used the technical term 'detergent' meaning what I usually call 'dish liquid'.

So in daily usage, I say 'dish liquid' or 'dishwasher detergent', or 'dishwasher soap', or 'dishwasher powder'. The word 'washer' or 'machine' is required for the machine use. I probably grew up saying 'dish soap', and I grew up before dishwashing machines were everywhere.

My partner isn't a native English speaker. He would buy hand-washing liquid.
posted by Goofyy at 11:59 PM on December 27, 2010

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