backwash noun earlier than 1988

‘Bryn’ has supplied a verifiable example in this sense from 1985.

In colloquial use, chiefly in North America, the word backwash can refer to the unappetizing mixture of saliva and beverage that flows back into a glass or bottle after a person takes a drink. This usage seems to be relatively recent; the earliest evidence for the sense found by OED researchers thus far dates to 1988:

It is late afternoon and the wet April air covers suburban pavement like the slimy backwash coating the glass of the shared Coke bottle your best friend meretriciously let you drink from in sixth grade.

1988 Washington Post 11 Sept. x., p. 15

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that this use of backwash may in fact date from at least the early 1970s. If this is true, it is likely that backwash (like many colloquial and slang words) first took hold primarily in oral use, and only later gained enough currency to be found in published texts. Given the amount of time between the early 1970s and the Washington Post article, it seems likely that documentation of backwash in this sense may be found prior to 1988. Can you help us find earlier evidence?

Update: The OED records this word in use from the late 19th century in the more general sense ‘the motion of a receding wave, a backwards current’. The sense we are interested in for this appeal is specifically the slang usage.

Posted by OED_Editor on 18 September 2013 14.56
Comments: 11

  • Bryn_Wordhunt

    A couple of peripheral usages:

    Response: a contemporary Jewish Review, Volume 16 has:

    He offered me some. I declined. You can’t share coke or milk with anyone, not even Philip Higgins. Too much backwash. The molecules of milk or coke bind to saliva and drag it back into the bottle. It was a great way to catch cooties or cancer.

    Vol. XVI Nos. 1-2 is given as Spring-Summer 1988 and Vol. XVI No.3 is given as Winter 1989, so the GoogleBooks snippet doesn’t confirm if this usage does antedate September 1988.

    Carty, J. (1988) Counterattack: taking back ground lost to sin, Multnomah Press, p.129, has:

    The guy asked, “Nancy, can I have a drink of your Coke?” … There would be backwash for sure. It’s one thing to share a Coke with a boyfriend, but it’s quite another to share one with this stranger.

    The Library of Congress Catalog Record confirms the year, but not the month, of publication.


    Williams, T / Underwood, J.(1969) My turn at Bat: the story of my life, has:

    I’d spit and every time I’d spit I’d swallow a little bit, taking in backwash. Now I’m beginning to feel a little queasy. I’m fighting vomiting. So I ducked into the clubhouse and got a 7 -Up, and all that did was make it worse.

    It is not in the context of drinking, but does illustrate a backwash of saliva; as well as suggesting that evidence from the 1970s is, indeed, likely.

    • Bryn_Wordhunt

      Alcorn, R.C. & Alcorn, N. (1986) Women under stress: preserving your sanity, Portland, Multnomah Press, `p.186’, has:

      But, of course she can’t waste Johnny’s unfinished peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so down it goes and if there’s no backwash in his glass of milk, it goes too.

      • Bryn_Wordhunt

        Krummel, R.P. (1985) Looking Good, New York, Michael Kesend Publishing, `p.141’, has:

        My shit dad – and he is a shit – drank my diet soda right out of the large bottle and then complained that it tasted “lousy and sickening.” I told him I didn’t want his “backwash and slime” all over my soda.

  • Phillip White

    It’s an engineering term at least back to the late 50s. It’s a pretty short leap from that usage to the slang.

  • Zac Chapman

    Backwash is uttered in the last verse of the twangy 1969 Grateful Dead classic, Dire Wolf:

    In the backwash of Fennario
    The black and bloody mire
    The Dire Wolf collects his due
    while the boys sing round the fire


  • Joshua Wanger
  • Wendy Shreve

    @CapeWindy I would research Pierre Fauchard’s Le Chirurgien Dentist to find the
    origins of ‘backwash’, in its usage with the word, ‘saliva’

  • Minivet

    Its rise in usage may be linked to the American urban legend, especially prevalent in the 80’s, that HIV could be transmitted by drinking from the same container.

  • Kate Smith Fitzgerald

    This is from patent papers, 1955

  • ricardo

    ‘Backwash’ in this sense goes back to at least the mid-1960s. I was a pupil in South Africa at boarding school in Kimberley, then day-school in Johannesburg, during this period. ‘Backwash’ was in common use among us schoolboys, in expressions such as ‘Gimme a sip of your Coke, but don’t backwash into it’; or, rejecting someone’s offer of a sip of their cooldrink (SA English for ‘soft drink’), ‘Ag, no man, you’ve backwashed into it!’

  • James Gleick

    The “backwash squeeze” is an intricate play in contract bridge, so named by Géza Ottlik in his book Adventures in Cardplay (1979) and earlier in The Bridge World magazine (1974).