On occasion, it happens to all of us: you’re doing a load of laundry and, when taking an article of clothing out of the washer or dryer, you discover that you’ve left some money in one of the pockets. Without fail, if you tell anybody about what happened, you’re likely to hear a really terrible joke about possessing “laundering” money. The joke may receive a laugh, a chuckle, or maybe just an eye roll, but, beyond the superficial word play, the word itself as well as the understanding behind it is definitely worthy of a closer look.
Coming from the Old French term lavandier which was itself derived from the Latin verb lavare, meaning ‘to wash’, our word has always spun around the idea of washing or cleaning.
First used around 1350 in the story of St. Brice, where it was written: “A woman that his launder was”, the story, using the word as a noun simply meaning ‘one who washes linen’, was included as part of a collection released in 1881 by Carl Horstmann, entitled Altenglische Legenden (Old English Legends).
Three centuries later, aside from being the person who does the washing, our word began to transition into also meaning the action (verb) of washing and hanging the linen to dry. This verbal usage first appeared in the 1664 satirical poem Hudibras: The Second Part, written by Samuel Butler, who penned: “It does your visage more adorn, Then if it were pruned, & starched, & laundered.”
At the turn of the 20th century, though our word still maintains its “washing” root, now has moved more towards the process of washing or cleaning a fabric, thanks to The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue (from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Incorporated), which notes in 1908 how an article of clothing: “will launder as well as a piece of linen.”
By mid-century, the definition had started to move away from clothes altogether and meaning something, well, dirtier, unethical, and unscrupulous. Utilized by Harry Redcay Warfel in a later edition (1961) of his biography on Noah Webster, entitled Noah Webster, Schoolmaster to America, remarks how a cited word: “Succeeded pretty well in laundering the grammar.”
It is from this changed/developed understanding of the term “launder” that has caused its application to the criminal act of masking or disguising illegally earned or obtained money. Though the first uses were for more petty activities, such as grammar theft or rolling back the odometer on a vehicle, one of the first uses relative to money was an event big enough to garner a lot of attention and make the usage permanent: Watergate. Specifically, an April 19, 1973 article from The Guardian stating how there were: “Suitcases stuffed with 200,000 dollars of Republican campaign funds; money being ‘laundered’ in Mexico.” Several months later, on September 17, demonstrating that the understanding had been solidified, the industry magazine, The Publishers’ Weekly, mentions another instance of moving money, stating: “A New York lawyer carrying $200,000 in his camera case to be ‘laundered’ in Switzerland.”
To clarify, through breaking down large sums of illegally-obtained money into smaller sums and moving it through multiple accounts and financial streams before returning it to the perpetrators, the attempt is to make the dirty/illegally-obtained income appear as clean/legal income, so that the income doesn’t appear illegal or suspicious to authorities, meaning no questions. Also, it shows just how painfully tiresome the joke at the beginning of this article is.