The English language needs a good, compact verb for “washing dishes,” which is a bit too indirect. And as an alternative, English speakers are tendered an even vaguer way of expressing the action, namely, “to do the dishes.”
To do them what, a favor?
Swedish offers better. In Swedish, “att diska” means “to wash the dishes.” Saying, “Jag diskar,” means, “I’m washing the dishes.”
Swedish and Danish are closely related, and my Danish friend Marianne, who speaks English exceptionally well, admits she sometimes finds the broad vocabulary overwhelming. For the non-native speaker it must be like crossing the Great Plains on foot. (For that matter, how many native speakers avail themselves of the wealth of vocabulary at their disposal.) Indeed, the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 entries. While Swedish and Danish are capable of great subtlety, their lexicons encompass fewer words. The Modern Svensk-Engelsk Ordbok offers about 52,000 entries. But for what’s lacking in quantity, these smaller planets can sometimes outmaneuver the large orb of English to grab the sunlight, as att diska attests.
For the speaker of English, how convenient it would be to say, without looking over one’s shoulder, “I dishwash.” But upon uttering this neologism, one would expect to be dragged into the gutter and pummeled. Hey, chump, your dishwasher’s running. Next time, take your pots and pans to the carwash.
It must be allowed that “wash the dishes” has a rolling susurrous quality. Nevertheless, the utterer can feel like a yokel—especially if he comes from a part of the country where “wash” is pronounced “warsh.”
“Let’s warsh up them plates and cups.”
(Warshing is required because them plates and cups is all coated with gravy and cigarette ashes and ain’t been touched since last Thursday, and the social worker, she’s a-comin’ over for inspection to decide whether the kids stay right here or go back again to foster care. Let’s pick up them whiskey bottles, too.)
For a language that offers such specificity among its verbs, such as “bifurcate” (“to cause to divide into two branches or parts,” which in Swedish is expressed as “delar i två delar”) and “expiate” (“to extinguish the guilt incurred by,” expressed in Swedish as få plikta för), the indwelling vagueness of “wash the dishes” and “do the dishes” is unsettling.
“Make the bed” could also use some extra horsepower. The Swedes say, “Att bädda,” and the bed is made. (The vowel ä, one of three additional vowels the Swedes have at their disposal, is in this case pronounced like the “ai” sound in “chaise.”) Back to the English, it sounds as though a quarter should be dropped into a slot. Make the bed what? Vibrate? Sit up and take notice?
But it’s easier to complain than to suggest a reform. The matter is herewith lain at the feet of Daniel Webster.