Dull as Dishwater


One thing is for sure: this is not how most of us would want to be described. ‘Dull as dishwater’. Dirty, dish-soiled water moves quickly from dull to disgusting. Of all the possible representations of dullness, how did dishwater find its way into the back of this idiom?


In his 1891 Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases, James Main Dixon offers a definition for this much-used expression: ‘wholly uninteresting’. Ouch. But, note one difference. The phrase Dixon describes is ‘dull as ditchwater’, not dishwater.

It’s ditch-like dullness that shows up in excerpts, such as Agatha Christie’s description of a not so fine chap in her 1924 The Man In The Brown Suit: ‘He’s good-looking in his way, but dull as ditch water’.



Charles Dickens uses the phrase in his 1865 Our Mutual Friend:

🧐 ‘He’s enough to break his mother’s heart, is this boy,’ said Miss Wren, half appealing to Eugene. ‘I wish I had never brought him up. He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, if he wasn’t as dull as ditch water. Look at him. There’s a pretty object for a parent’s eyes!’

Assuredly, in his worse than swinish state (for swine at least fatten on their guzzling, and make themselves good to eat), he was a pretty object for any eyes.’ 🧐


Meanwhile, in his 1877 Glossary, Edward Peacock offers a slightly different definition: ‘As dead as ditchwater’, ‘As dull as ditchwater’, said of something utterly tasteless, vapid, or stupid’.

So how did we get from the ditch to the sink? The most commonly cited theory is that this was a pronunciation and/or printing error: from ditch to dish, and here we are.


 Dee @ Copper and Wild




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Elizabeth Newton

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