What explains this word's opposing meanings? Can they be conciliated? I already understand and so ask NOT about the definition, below which I want to burrow. I heed the Etymological Fallacy.

sluice = {noun} 1. A sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate:

= {verb} [with object] Wash or rinse freely with a stream or shower of water:

I don't replicate Etymonline because it only explains the noun's etymology. My issue is that any device for restricting water flow jars with using water freely (verb)?

  • 3
    They're opposing? A sluice gate can be used both for blocking the flow of water or for letting water flow freely. Just like a light switch turns the light both off and on. Feb 8, 2015 at 0:34
  • 3
    In linguistics, sluicing has yet another meaning.
    – user28567
    Feb 8, 2015 at 0:57
  • I've just had a look at "sluice" in Collins (noun and verb) and it is understandable how the different meanings are connected. But I doubt that Oxford's example "She sluiced her face with water" is typical usage. It is very far from the technique of a gold digger washing out gold in running water. collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/sluice
    – rogermue
    Feb 8, 2015 at 3:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - Good question. I have fixed the erroneous link.
    – Erik Kowal
    Feb 8, 2015 at 3:53
  • 1
    A "sluice" is a narrow channel through which water flows. A "sluice gate" is a mechanism that cuts off the flow of the water through the channel. What's so confusing?
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 14, 2020 at 2:22

3 Answers 3


The common notion in all of the definitions of sluice is controlling the flow of water:



1.0 (also sluice gate) A sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate:

The water gushed through the sluices.

Lake levels are now regulated by sluices.

1.1 (also sluiceway) An artificial water channel for carrying off overflow or surplus water.

1.2 (In gold mining) a channel or trough constructed with grooves into which a current of water is directed in order to separate gold from the ore containing it.

2.0 An act of rinsing or showering with water:



1.0 Wash or rinse freely with a stream or shower of water:

She sluiced her face in cold water.

Crews sluiced down the decks of their ship

1.1 [NO OBJECT, WITH ADVERBIAL OF DIRECTION] (Of water) pour or flow freely:

The waves sluiced over them.

The etymology starts with the exclusion of water, but the usage extends from there:

c.1400, earlier scluse (mid-14c.), a shortening of Old French escluse "sluice, floodgate" (Modern French écluse),

from Late Latin exclusa "barrier to shut out water" (in aqua exclusa "water shut out," i.e. separated from the river),

from fem. singular of Latin exclusus, past participle of excludere "to shut out"

  • The sluice gate is a tool to exclude water from places where it is undesirable.
  • The sluiceway is also a tool to carry the water away (because water builds up behind obstacles unless it is carried away), simultaneously carrying water to a more desirable location.
  • By extension, any act of intentionally moving water in an open channel is the verb sluice.
  • By further extension, the water is carried to sluice gold ore, separating heavier gold particles from other sediment.
  • By extension, any act of washing with running water is associated with sluice.
  • By extension, [re]moving any extraneous material is a metaphorical sluice.

Well, they are both concerned with the movement of water, so they are not too far apart.

The transference probably happened through the use of "sluice gate". This somehow transformed from a gate that acts as a sluice into a gate that stops a sluice, that is, the free flow of water.

You might be interested in the English village of Seaton Sluice, named for a sluice project to stop the harbour silting up.


Whilst I have to accept @Peter Shor's comment, I do have some sympathy for your perplexity.

I, too, have always considered the noun, and verb sluice as strange bedfellows. Especially this is so, in the way the verb is often used today, in accordance with OED sense 4.

To throw or pour water over (a person or thing); to swill with water, esp. in order to clean or wash; to flush or scour with a rush of water. Also, to fill with water.

This latter use of sluice seems to have an onomatopoeic quality, the word sounding a bit like that of the flushing water. One might be forgiven for thinking that this was its origin. In fact the etymology of sluice is from the French escluse, Latin exclusa, past participle of excludere - to shut out.

Other aspects of the verb, meaning to let out (water) do seem to have the appearance of being more obviously related to the noun.

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    I've always imagined something like sluicing the deck to be from the image of someone briefly opening a sluice, allowed a pent-up mass of water to suddenly gush forth and spill out over the deck. Obviously, that needs a bit of extension before it works with sluicing your face in the morning (else pray your face doesn't get washed away entirely), but not that much. Feb 8, 2015 at 2:29
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But let's say the word sluice from 'closure', had never been invented, and the word 'barrier gate' used instead. Could you imagine barrier gating the decks? The word sluice immediately suggests something liquid to me.
    – WS2
    Feb 8, 2015 at 21:15

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