Of course your existence matters to other people—your parents and others who care about you—but taken as a whole, their lives have no point either, so it ultimately doesn't matter that you matter to them. You matter to them and they matter to you, and that may give your life a feeling of significance, but you're just taking in each other's washing, so to speak.

[What does it all mean, T. Nagel]

I can't find the definition of "taking in each other's washing" in my dictionary. What does it mean? Thanks!

I think it means "pleasing each other". Is it right?

5 Answers 5


"Taking in washing" is an old phrase for someone, usually a housewife, who makes a little income on the side by washing other people's clothes for them. Someone might say, "We needed some extra money, so I decided to take in some washing."

In this case, "taking in each other's washing" is an attempt to make a humorous comment on the idea of people helping each other. Alice might pay Betty to do her washing because Alice has more money and Betty has more spare time. Or maybe Alice hates doing laundry and Betty enjoys it. But for two people to take in each other's washing would be silly and pointless. They're both still doing the same amount of work, now they're just each doing the other person's laundry instead of their own.

The writer is saying that people helping each other is a pointless waste of time because you're just re-arranging mundane tasks.

I haven't read the larger context, and in any case I probably should refrain from commenting on the idea, just discuss the language.

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    You are probably correct with this. However, when I was young we hung washing out to dry in the garden. If it rained and a neighbour with washing on the line was not home then another neighbour would take it in to their house. So, might it just mean mutual self-help?
    – Mawg
    May 25, 2018 at 9:45
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    @Mawg I think there would be a subtle difference in wording there. I'd call that "bringing in my neighbor's laundry for them". I wouldn't call it "taking in washing". There are probably lots of stock phrases that have a standard meaning, that if examined literally could be construed to mean something else. Like if I said that "the check bounced", this is understood to mean that the bank wouldn't honor the check because there isn't enough money in the account, and not that I dropped it on the floor and it rebounded into the air. :-)
    – Jay
    May 25, 2018 at 15:25
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    Maybe it's a which "side of the pond" thing. In the UK, laundry is always paid for and done by professionals in a shop (even if you pay a neighboUr, you pay them to "do your washing"). And "taking/bringing in the washing" is what we did when it was dry, or began to rain. I guess we need some context, but your explanation is probably correct, with respect to this question. I just though I would throw in a little anecdote.
    – Mawg
    May 25, 2018 at 17:47
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    I don't think it is literally "helping each other is pointless"; but that it is pointless for Alice to take in Betty's washing, while Betty takes in Alice's. They may feel like they've achieved something, but it's an illusion. May 25, 2018 at 18:41
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    @Mawg In the context of poor societies in the UK, washerwomen would collect washing from houses and take it to wash - either at home or in communal facilities with their own equipment (tubs, mangles, etc) or in a river. 'Taking in washing' means providing the service of collecting, washing and delivering back clothing, usually on foot. The idea of laundry 'shops' came later, when laundry became more industrialised and people (or their servants) were more mobile so did the delivery themselves. May 25, 2018 at 21:17

Even though I'm a competent native speaker, I didn't recognise the intended sense straight off. I was initially thrown by the fact that in recent years I've encountered many variants of taking in each other's dirty washing in the context of global finance (banks "laundering" other banks' illicit profits, playing "pass the parcel" with bad debts, etc.; metaphorically keeping the seamy underside of high finance hidden from prying eyes).

But here's the real intended reference, as explained in Basic Christian Ethics (1950)...

Two men alone on a desert island made their living by taking in each other's washing.

Does not the notion of two or more people having disinterested regard for one another amount to just this, each doing for the other what he might better have been left to do for himself, the inverted self- love of each living in the other's interest?

(Note that how you make your living normally means what you do to earn money. You have to be a bit creative to imagine how that would work with just two people on a desert island!)

And here's an earlier instance from New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (1932) - itself referring to the usage as the old jibe that used to be cast at the Socialists in years past...

The Government is trying to make the people live by taking in each other's washing.

(Which is obviously unrealistic fairyland economics.)

The literal sense of the usage is verb definition #3 in dictionary.com...

take in to receive into one's house in exchange for payment.
to take in washing; take in lodgers

...and it's worth pointing out that when used in that literal sense, she takes in washing usually implies (a) it's her neighbours' laundry, not casual customers, and (b) it doesn't pay well, but she really needs the little she gets from it (she's only just about scratching a living).

I'm sure that like me, most native speakers won't be familiar with this "turn of phrase" (which has massively declined from its pre-war peak). So even if you're not a native speaker, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to deciding whether the specific usage as cited by OP should be understood as including either or both of the above connotations. There comes a point where it's a matter of Off Topic literary criticism, as opposed to basic understanding of English.

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    I would add to this, that the phrase as used by Nagel has a connotation of being pointless because it is circular; rather like "pulling each other up by each other's bootstraps," to adapt a similar idiom. Without external help, neither person benefits in any significant way from the transaction. (Not that I necessarily agree with Nagel.)
    – LarsH
    May 25, 2018 at 13:50
  • @LarsH: Possibly - but I deliberately avoided going into too much detail about what meanings / connotations might apply to the specific usage as cited by OP, mainly because I wasn't familiar with the expression myself. That's to say, in my opinion it's probably more important for learners to know that many/most native speakers wouldn't initially understand the usage any better or worse than any learner who at least knows English well enough to understand the literal meaning of take in washing (do one's neighbours' laundry, usually cheaply, for desperately-needed extra money). May 25, 2018 at 14:54
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    OK. I'm not criticizing your answer, just trying to help the OP understand.
    – LarsH
    May 25, 2018 at 15:13
  • @FumbleFingers is it intentional that your Google Books ngram link returns no results at all? May 25, 2018 at 16:56
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    @Nathan Hinchey: I didn't know until I just checked the link myself. Seems to be a bug either in the browser (mine's Chrome/Win10) or within the NGram webpage. If you click on the search lots of books button you should get the graph - I do. May 25, 2018 at 17:16

It's not really an English idiom as much as a simple metaphor for pointless effort. Your clothes get dirty, you wash them, I help you take them in, and vice-versa. Both of us feel like we are contributing because we keep busy, but objectively we create nothing new.

In the context of your example, I'm going to assume that the author feels having meaning to other people is similarly pointless. However, perhaps he goes on to say that a life that has meaning in some other, objective way -- one in which we're not just metaphorically scratching one another's back -- is not pointless.

(Edit) The full title of the book is What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. I'm drawing certain conclusions about where the author is going with this based on the subject -- and which I think the other answers fail to address.

I speculate the author's point is that valuing one's life by our value to others is a kind of circular argument -- "I value you because you value me because I value you", etc. To illustrate this circular argument he uses the metaphor of "taking in each other's washing" which subjectively seems like useful occupation, but objectively is just spinning our collective wheels.

Otherwise the metaphor has little relation to other laundry-related idioms.

  • No offence to one with such a high rep, but that sounds way off the mark to me.
    – Mawg
    May 25, 2018 at 17:48
  • @Mawg Rep has nothing to do with it. We're all English speakers. Given the limited context I admit I might be slightly off the mark, but I can't see how I can possibly be way off the mark. That's sounds like baseless hyperbole, since mine is not all that different from the other answers, and especially since you haven't offered any counterargument.
    – Andrew
    May 25, 2018 at 18:09
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    Sorry, I will retract that; it was thoughtlessly phrased. Certainly no offence meant, but I think that it is more concrete, having used it that way myself (and those all around me as I grew up), than abstract as you posit it. See @Jay's answer & my comment. Plus one to you, though :-)
    – Mawg
    May 25, 2018 at 18:29
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    When combined with @FumbleFingers "Basic Christian Ethics", I think you'd be right with pointless employment: they appear to be making a living, but aren't actually making any profit. Likewise, arguing that your life has meaning because you matter to others, and vice versa, is an empty claim. May 25, 2018 at 18:53
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    @NigelTouch I've added a short edit to my answer. I expect the author is using it as a metaphor for circular reasoning.
    – Andrew
    May 25, 2018 at 19:32

I agree with @Jay about the meaning (and would expand it to say it explains the difference between revenue and profit), but to provide a little more context, someone did some research into the history of this joke and found that it was from a newspaper (the Saturday Review) from 1876.

Cite: 1876 November 11, The Saturday Review, Mr. Froude on Landed Gentry. Page 592, Column 1, John W. Parker and Son, Published at the Office of the Saturday Review, London. Google Books

If this is a state of things which he approves it is difficult to understand his reason for introducing an account of the doings of the late Mr. Augustus Smith in the Scilly Islands. The natives of that group, before Mr. Smith's time, are popularly said to have eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in each other's washing. Now things are very different, and the people are well fed, well lodged, and well educated.

The person doing the research Garson O'Toole found that a later reference from 1885 that "mentioned three popular American writers: Josh Billings, Artemas Ward, and Mark Twain" but did not specificly credit any of them with the authorship.

Cite: 1885 December 5, The Critic, The American Humorists, [Acknowledgement to London Daily News], Page 274, Column 1, The Critic Company, New York. Google Books

In American country newspapers there is usually one column entirely devoted to facetiae, which appear to have been clipped out of the columns of other country papers. They live on each other, just as the natives of the Scilly Islands are feigned to eke out a precarious livelihood by taking in each other's washing.

Garson O'Toole's email suggested that there was a 1866 variant involving the Isle of Man, but I wasn't able to find the cite he was referring to (possibly that was a typo of the 1876 cite, but that wasn't involving the Isle of Man).


'Taking in each other's washing' is nothing but helping out each other in society. In a society, different people have different extents of knowledge, ideas, etc. and have different types of occupations, the net sum of all leading to the efficient society. The exercise of sharing with others your ideas, knowledge, and intellect in your area or areas of proficiency(expertise) and receiving in turn, the same inputs from them in their fields of proficiency so that the net total sum of knowledge in the society goes up leading to its advancement, is what is meant by the phrase 'taking in each other's washing'.

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    Right idea, wrong conclusion. Advancement comes from the efficiencies of specialising and economies of scale. Cooking for 10 does not take 10x the effort of cooking for 1. And if you cook better than any of the other 9, they all benefit from your superior skill. So you exchange your expertise in cookery for someone else's expertise in metalwork, and another's expertise in building, etc. If you exchange the same service then neither of you are any better off. May 25, 2018 at 2:41
  • "taking in each other's washing"... My Grandfather, an English Head Master, used to laugh that the whole of Europe was broke & we all survive by taking in each other's washing. It's what you do when you are poor to make money. It was based on a joke usually attributed to Mark Twain, but has its roots in economics, think Adam Smith/Karl Marx... I was reminded about this when my Greek cousin in Athens was ranting about how much she hated the EU, she wanted to know why all the tomatoes in the shops was tasteless stuff from the Netherlands when tomatoes will grow at the side of the road in Greece Apr 24, 2019 at 12:56

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