Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Gary asked why we call those spacers washers. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions for washer: (1) one who washes, and (2) a perforated disk designed to reduce friction and wobble, ensure tightness, or reduce leakage. The OED also gives it an “origin unknown” label.

Many different materials are used to make washers. They can be steel, rubber, or plastic. Sometimes metal washers are plated, meaning that they are coated with zinc, nickel, brass, or some other substance. A Chinese company lists these metal washers: flat washers, spring lock washers, internal teeth lock washers, external teeth lock washers, wave spring washers, countersunk external teeth washers, washers with a ball face, and washers with a cone face. Who knew?

The fact that washers are sometimes coated makes me wonder if one specific sense of “to wash” is responsible for the name. That sense is, “to overlay with a thin coat or deposit of metal.” Perhaps early washers took their name from the coating process. Let me emphasize that this is speculation on my part; I have no citation to give.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “washer is generally considered an agent noun of wash (v.), but the sense connection is difficult, and the noun may derive instead from the ancestor of the French vis ‘screw, vise’.”

NOTE: Words to the Wise received a favorable review in Andrea McDougal’s Word Nerds Rejoice: Top 25 Blogs For Editing Geeks.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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