Is squeaky in "squeaky clean" an onomatopoeia? Is there a right word to describe this word, other than simply an "adjective"? It's something that uses the description of a sound as an adjective.

This word is simply a form of "imagery". However, I'm still not sure how I would go about describing this word. "An adjective eliciting imagery"? Is that actually describing onomatopaeia?

  • 2
    This question is not very clear. It seems like you're pitting several independent terms against each other: an adjective is a part of speech which is orthogonal to whether it is onomatopoeia, imagery is entirely different again. If you're not clear about the meaning of any of these words ask a new question, or a question on the Linguistics site. Aug 10, 2014 at 6:46
  • Look in to the phrase "squeeze until the pips squeak."
    – Fattie
    Aug 10, 2014 at 8:40
  • 1
    I think it's General Reference that onomatopoeia and adjective are orthogonal concepts, so any given word can be either, neither, or both. And the meaning of imagery is also General Reference, so I see nothing worth addressing on ELU in this question. Aug 10, 2014 at 13:12

3 Answers 3


Personal experience growing up with the saying is that it originally refers to clean dishes. Think "Fairy" dishwashing liquid advertising. And I am talking circa 1975.

The word "squeak" used in the context, is clearly an "onomatopeia". Also, I would usually use this word with the "ea" centre, rather than the double e; "ee". Although, that could be an english vs. american english thing.

Obviously, based on this onomatopeiaic usage, it can apply to anything that makes a high pitched noise when rubbed 'cleaned' with appropriate utensils.

  • 1
    For people who have actually done housework, especially washing dishes, you would understand why this is the one and only correct answer. Aug 10, 2014 at 7:15
  • 1
    +1 It's something I still see people doing in restaurants : rubbing their finger on a plate to see if it squeaks. The squeak being a measure of cleanliness as a plate with a fine film of grease won't squeak.
    – Frank
    Aug 10, 2014 at 7:40
  • 1
    @Frank How interesting! I had always wondered how and why a word implying sonority would be used to explain something visual.
    – WS2
    Aug 10, 2014 at 8:11
  • 1
    So, to be complete, squeaky is an onomatopaeic adjective.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 10, 2014 at 9:04
  • 2
    Looking at ngram, most of the really early uses of the phrase "squeaky clean" seem to be about hair. Eg 1960's Reader's Digest, early adverts for Shampoo and army medical manuals. The classic way to tell if hair is washed is if it squeaks. I suspect that this is more likely to be the origin of the phrase (though I haven't done a thorough survey). Aug 10, 2014 at 10:13

I was going to add this as a comment but it turned out to be too large.

OED(2) has an entry for squeaky (adjective) and definition c talks about squeaky clean.

Here they have a citation of use from 1975, which is the figurative sense of squeaky clean meaning beyond reproach. That seems very odd to me, I'm sure the Fairy adverts were before 75 and the figurative squeaky clean is based on the physical squeaky clean.

So after a little poking about, the earliest reference to squeaky clean I can find is from an advert in volume 51-52 of the 1936 publication of Motion Picture; a magazine about movies.

Presumably the magazine is still under some copyright so here is a link. The cover page is so badly scanned that it's not possible (for me) to see if the dating is correct but volume numbers put it about the mid-30's. As you can see it is an advert for hair products from a company called 'Duart'. It seems they still sell hair products and this trademark dates it around the same time as the publication.

So it looks like squeaky clean did not originate with dirty dishes, but with clean hair.


It is "squeaky clean" and refers to hair. When washed and fully rinsed the fibres squeak.

  • +1 See my comment/answer for an old reference about hair. To me (as a Britisher) it will always be clean plates but that's just the power of advertising.
    – Frank
    Aug 10, 2014 at 10:22
  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U. As you will have seen before you posted your answer, answers should be backed up with references. Aug 10, 2014 at 12:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.