List vs Laundry List
October 25, 2006 1:20 PM   Subscribe

When does a "list" become a "laundry list"?

This has been bugging me a lot recently as the term seems to have hit the tipping point. Everywhere I look/read people are enumerating "Laundry Lists" but to me, they seem to just be plain old Lists. What's the difference between the two? Is Laundry List just a way of saying List that sounds smarter? Is there a subtlety between the two that I'm missing? It's kind of a simple question that I hate to waste my question on but every single time I hear the phrase it jumps out at me so I need to know if I'm justified in being annoyed at it. I'm sure there's a correct usage (informal? overly detailed?) somewhere but I don't know what it is.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there a subtlety between the two that I'm missing?

"Laundry list" tends to have a negative connotation. They're often overly long--imagine an article that gives thirty examples of a phenomenon in order to illustrate that phenomenon when three would do. They tend to be hastily thrown together, and are generally uncategorized, especially when due to their length some kind of order or categorization would be helpful.

(Disclaimer: this is my gut feeling of what "laundry list" means. It is not backed up by any research.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:34 PM on October 25, 2006

I think it's just an abused, trendy kind of saying that seems vintage so people use it. If there isn't distinct divisions between loads, materials and colors then it is most certainly not a laundry list to me. Maybe it is leftover from some kind of service duty, like cleaning the Head in the navy. "You're on the laundry list this evening, Frank", etc? I do not know the etymology of the phrase, I only hear it inappropriately applied so this is a bit of a wandering geuss.
posted by prostyle at 1:36 PM on October 25, 2006

My understanding coincides with DevilsAdvocate's. A list becomes a laundry list when it's unnecessarily long and involved.
posted by occhiblu at 1:41 PM on October 25, 2006

IANALinguist, but I agree with DevilsAdvocate: "laundry lists" are generally long and uncategorized lists. The term is often used to indicate disapproval of such a list, especially if it is simply a litany of familiar complaints/requests.
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:41 PM on October 25, 2006

A laundry list seems to be a list someone doesn't like. So if the boss's to-do list is too long, someone might say, "Gawd, she just gave me this whole laundry list of things to do."

And yeah, DevilsAdvocate captures the sense of it, I think. Say there's an article that lists 50 reasons to clean your house and "get organized now." If the article isn't particularly well organized, it comes off as just an unsubstantiated laundry list of crap the author kind of thinks you should do.

"Laundry list" is often a loaded term that comes up in domestic disputes and political settings—"She gave me this whole laundry list of mistakes I'd made and kept talking about my faults. I felt so attacked." or "McCaskill leveled a whole laundry list of complaints against my client." It's meant to cast disrepute on the person's statements, regardless of whether that air of disrepute is deserved. A person who says another person came up with a "laundry list" of something may be saying as much about themselves as about the other person by calling it that.
posted by limeonaire at 1:44 PM on October 25, 2006

Long and yes, I am right in being annoyed at misuse. Seem like in most instances I've seen it used where it was just a plain old list, neither long or uncategorized. Though now that I think of it, the phrase, "Now, I'm not going to give you a whole laundry list....." is in my head, which fits with the "indicates disapproval" aspect that Urban Hermit mentions.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:47 PM on October 25, 2006

I'd say a laundry list is of things to do (like chores), as opposed to a shopping list, etc.
posted by Pressed Rat at 1:52 PM on October 25, 2006

"Laundry list" is usually either dismissive or pejorative, so the distinction relies on the tone and intent of the speaker.
posted by cribcage at 1:56 PM on October 25, 2006

When the list is exasperatingly long, it's a laundry list.
posted by The Michael The at 1:59 PM on October 25, 2006

A laundry list is a real form you fill out in hotels and boarding houses, to send along with your laundry, that is pre-printed with all the kinds of articles that men, women and children might send to the laundry, usually categorized fairly arbitrarily. You put the number of each type of articles you are sending, any special instructions ("light starch," "shirts folded and boxed," "suit for press only"), and maybe the time/date you need the articles back (standard or special service), and the form is returned with your laundry order, noting any count discrepancies, as a confirmation of your bill, which will be added to main bill at the lobby desk.

Since the laundry list has all kinds of articles of clothing for all kinds of people, it generally is longer than you would need it to be if you were filling it out for just your own order. But it is pre-printed to save you time, and sometimes to show prices, and as a reminder to you of special instructions you should include for the laundry.

So, I trust the connotations noted above will flow directly from this description of the real article. What kind of hotels do y'all stay at, that you've never seen one of these?
posted by paulsc at 2:01 PM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

So, I trust the connotations noted above will flow directly from this description of the real article.

Um, no.

A "milk run" indicates that you'll be stopping at every potential stop. That's the explicit meaning. The implicit meaning is that it's annoying. I would hope that milk men were not actually annoyed by their jobs though.

"Laundry list" is the same way. My definition would be a list of largely undifferentiated items. The implication is, as cribcage noted, either dismissive or pejorative. But I don't feel the same way about actual laundry lists for laundry in hotels - those I kind of appreciate actually. But the meaning of the idiom, to me at least, is pretty clear and not really related to actual laundry lists.

As another example would be "wooden" as a personal description. While there are plenty of good properties associated with wood, wooden definitely carries negative connotations.

This could be a whole separate question - idioms unrelated to their linguistic roots. Being "nuts" has little to do with actual nuts (I think). etc etc, et al, ad nauseum.
posted by GuyZero at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2006

" me at least, ..."

Aye, there's the rub. Because I've left open the power of simile and metaphor in a writer's hands, to set a connotation for a real thing. Thus:

"I took my car over to Joe, to see just what I needed to do the brake job the service manual recommended. But rather than look at the car as I'd hoped, Joe just reeled off a laundry list of possible parts I'd need." Negative connotation, surrounding use as a metaphor, explicitly indicated by pejorative just.


"I had never checked with our printer about possibilities for color in our business forms, and it was quite an education when he presented a laundry list of possibilities, and began to explain the various categories, such as single color, 4 color, offset and screen printing, with their associated costs and lead times." Positive connotation, surrounding use as a metaphor, indicated by qualifying phrase quite an education.


"Martha had a memory of her kitchen like a laundry list -- she certianly knew what was on hand, if she could first recall in what category or location it could likely be found." Negative connotation, surrounding use as simile.
posted by paulsc at 3:26 PM on October 25, 2006

Thanks for the enlightenment, paulsc -- I've always thought it a stupid term with no basis in reality, that "shopping list" was more appropriate.
posted by Rash at 4:09 PM on October 25, 2006

Thanks paulsc for that description. I've always wondered about the origins of that term.
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 5:02 PM on October 25, 2006

Follow-up question: What other tropes can we employ while using the term "laundry list"?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:29 PM on October 25, 2006

Hm, so, I suppose it's a matter of taste, but I would disagree with:

Positive connotation, surrounding use as a metaphor, indicated by qualifying phrase quite an education.

I would say that in that case it's used to describe an excessively detailed list and is pejorative in the sense that the list was too detailed for him to understand.

Also, in your explanation I would have interpreted "quite an education" as sarcasm, in that the speaker wasn't looking to get educated, but simply to get some forms printed.

So, while I admit you could have intended it as a positive, I, as a reader, have never read the idiom that way. But as always, YMMV.
posted by GuyZero at 9:00 AM on October 26, 2006

It's a laundry list when it's too much.
posted by electroboy at 9:26 AM on October 26, 2006

« Older Help me fix my library blog, please.   |   Windows iTunes accessing MP3s on Mac Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.