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The term whitewash is used in sports to describe a situation where the opponents are beaten in a series of matches failing to register a single win.

Merriam-Webster defines it as :-

to hold (an opponent) scoreless in a game or contest

What is the history of the word when used in sports? Is there some racist undertone to the term?

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I'm not disputing your assertion (I don't like to argue with dictionaries – that's usually a losing position). Still, I think it's worth noting that, at least in the U.S., this is far more likely to be called a sweep than a whitewash. –  J.R. Mar 23 '13 at 7:27
    
@J.R. Clean sweeps (and whitewashes) can also be seen in other sports and in other parts of the world. A shutout (formerly referred to as a whitewash), on the other hand, appears to be peculiar to the US. –  coleopterist Mar 23 '13 at 20:30
    
@J.R.: I can understand your apprehension, my reference being the game of Cricket wherein, "whitewash" is a fairly common term. –  KeyBrd Basher Mar 25 '13 at 5:27
    
I don't have any "apprehension" – I'm merely stating a different point of view. I found it interesting to learn that "whitewash" is another term used for "sweep" in this context. –  J.R. Mar 25 '13 at 9:40
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4 Answers 4

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There's nothing racist about it. The figurative use comes from the literal use of applying a kind of white paint to walls, from the 16th century as a verb. This was then used figuratively to mean to cover up faults, blemishes, or otherwise give a fair appearance (18th century as a verb).

The sporting use is applied when the loser fails to score, or loses all the games in a series, or more loosely is beaten by a large margin, and comes from baseball. The OED's first citations for the noun and the verb are both 1867:

1867 Chicago Republican 6 July 2/6 The Unions were whitewashed 3 times, and the Forest Citys 5 times.

1867 N.Y. Clipper 31 Aug. 164/2 The first ‘whitewash’ of the [baseball] game was drawn by the Mutuals.

In the verb case, it says the beaten team were whitewashed. This is analogous to their part of the scoreboard remaining clean and blank.


I found an antedating from the year before in the Cleveland Daily Leader, June 18, 1866, Morning Edition, "Baseball":

The fifth and sixth innings resulted favorably to Cleveland. The seventh was a whitewash for both clubs. The eighth, which was by mutual agreement the last, added seven to the score of each, and the final result stood: Forest City, 40; Reserve 26.

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I've sent the antedating to the OED. –  Hugo Mar 23 '13 at 10:56
    
Even I was unsure about the racism part, but my doubt stems from the words whitewash, brownwash and blackwash. I cannot help but think that there might be just a hint of racial slur. –  KeyBrd Basher Mar 25 '13 at 5:35
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Curious... Brownwash and blackwash are used when, say, India or the West Indies whitewash England in cricket. Brownwash is freely used in many Indian/Pakistani cricket forums and news sites. I saw one person saying it's racist, but the others disagreed. A question on the usage and origin of these cricketing terms would be interesting. –  Hugo Mar 25 '13 at 6:44
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Etymonline does not mention the use of whitewash in sport. But it is still interesting as the modern use is derived from these senses:

1590s, "to wash a building surface with white liquid," from white + wash. Figurative sense of "to cover up, conceal" is attested from 1762. Related: Whitewashed; whitewashing. The noun is recorded from 1690s.

Wiktionary and a couple of other places date the sporting sense of the term to baseball from the 1800s:

(baseball, slang, dated, late, 19th century, archaic) To prevent a team from scoring any runs.

In his book, High and inside: an A to Z guide to the language of baseball (1997), Joseph McBride notes:

To "whitewash" a team, a term that can be traced back as far as 1851, is to obliterate it, just as whitewash does to the previous coloring of a fence. The word used today is "shutout." Synonyms for "whitewash" were "kalsomine" and "calcimine," ...

Considering the fact that the first official baseball game is said to have taken place in 1846, this is remarkable.

So it appears that there are no racist undertones to the term. That said, for reasons unknown, it has fallen out of fashion in baseball and has been replaced by the term shutout.

Whitewash is still in widespread use in other sports, most notably, cricket. While I wouldn't consider the following to be racist, it is still noteworthy:

West Indies' consecutive 5–0 defeats of England in 1984 and 1985-86. These two results are also commonly labelled blackwashes because of the dark skin of the West Indies players.


Also of passing interest:

Whitewashed is a term used to describe a member of a racial minority group, often those of Asian heritage, who have culturally assimilated to white, Western culture. Whitewashed individuals know little of their native culture. The term is typically used in a derogatory manner. It's akin to calling someone a racial sellout.

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Any idea what McBride's 1851 reference is? The OED's n. sense 4 combines An act of ‘whitewashing’, as of a bankrupt along with sports meanings. Their first citation is of cleaning bankruptcy in an 1851 Australian newspaper: When once in a twelvemonth your agent goes smash, And bolts to New Zealand, or gets a whitewash. Their next citation is an 1867 baseball one. Although similar, I don't think it can be said the Australian 1851 is the same as the sporting use: to whitewash a team. –  Hugo Mar 22 '13 at 14:42
    
@Hugo No idea, sorry. All I could access was the excerpt which I've quoted. That said, the author of the book is apparently a noted writer and academic, a fact which I suppose, bolsters the claim a wee bit. [Re: NZ, check out the linked Wiktionary entry for blackwash.] –  coleopterist Mar 22 '13 at 14:53
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Yes, NZ use "black" as a national team colour and to describe many of their sporting things: their male rugby team is the All Blacks, their basketball team the Tall Blacks, their American football team the Ironblacks, the hockey team the Black Sticks, surfing the Black Fins, softball Black Sox, wheelchair rugby Wheel Blacks, Black Caps in cricket, etc etc etc. I expect NZ blackwash postdates US whitewash by quite some time. –  Hugo Mar 22 '13 at 15:09
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I don't think whitewash could be racist. It is like someone having worked hard to make a painting and later you whitewash it, so you have destroyed the hours of effort and hard work it took to make the painting, back to zero.

So in sports whitewash is that you don't let the effort of opponents bear fruit, score remains zero despite their full efforts, you have ruined the entire hard work they put in for the game, preparation etc. so you have whitewashed your opponents.

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The term is informally used in sports and it has no racist undertone appended. White comes from the score - board which remains white at the end of the game (since no score had to be displayed). There are many languages that uses similar expressions (white game-tennis) when referring to different sport matches where one team (player) hasn't scored.

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Please provide a reference. –  coleopterist Mar 22 '13 at 14:03
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Football: link; Tennis: link. Please use a translator to see the expressions used in the title of the articles. It involves the word alb which means white –  SmokerAtStadium Mar 22 '13 at 14:23
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Thank you. Please incorporate such information into your answer along with accompany translations where necessary. –  coleopterist Mar 22 '13 at 14:29
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