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Should I wash my hands of this?

Has this expression ever been used as a way of suggesting a bribe?

  • Washing your hands of something is to remove that thing by washing; whereas washing your hands in something is to use that thing to wash them. For example, if you "wash your hands of dirty water", you are removing that dirty water; if you "wash your hands in dirty water" then you are trying to clean them with it. Assuming bribery is taken as immoral, dirt as a metaphor for an immoral act, and hands as metonymy for your deeds, then "washing your hands of a bribe" would be to have nothing to do with it (as you are acting to remove it). – Dan Sheppard May 3 '14 at 19:04
  • This is an ancient metaphor. – tchrist May 3 '14 at 20:13
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The expression means to refuse to accept responsibility for; abandon or renounce.

It alludes to Pontius Pilate's washing his hands before having Jesus put to death, saying "I'm innocent of the blood of this just person" (Matthew 27:24).

E.g.

"I've done all I can for him, and now I'm washing my hands of him.

And so, "Should I wash my hands of this?" simply means "Should I avoid ( or renounce) responsibility for this?"

  • But in that expression it still means 'I'm not taking any responsibility for what happens', doesn't it? It only infers abandonment because you start off by saying you have done all you can for him. As I understand it the modern expression means exactly what Pontius Pilate meant, i.e. 'I'm not personally taking any responsibility for what happens, someone else can if they wish, but I'm not having it on my conscience'. – WS2 May 3 '14 at 15:05
  • There is also the association with Lady Macbeth -- "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!" (Though clearly the biblical reference is older and the main source of the idiom.) – Hot Licks Nov 1 '16 at 22:26

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