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In , a sink is a fixture for washing dishes (kitchen sink), clothes (laundry sink, or for big ones, laundry tub), or buckets (cleaner's sink) while a basin is for washing hands (hand basin) or, in specialist situations, some other part of the body such as hair (haidresser's basin).

Of course, in a domestic situation, hands will often be washed in a sink, but in a commercial kitchen or laundry, a hand basin will be provided for hand washing separate from the sinks. I know that is more likely to use washbasin rather than basin or hand basin.

Kitchen Sink

Kitchen Sink

Laundry Sink

Laundry Sink

Laundry Tub

Laundry Tub

Cleaner's Sink

Cleaner's Sink

Hand Basin

Hand Basin

Hairdresser's Basin

Hairdresser's Basin

In casual usage, a basin might be referred to as a sink or, less frequently, a sink as a basin, but most people will know they are not using the right word if it is pointed out to them. In technical usage, such as building, the terms would never be used interchangeably.

Does this distinction exist in other versions of English?

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    All of these are sinks in my West Coast American English. Pretty sure I've never used the term basin except for geography. Commented Jun 23 at 1:48
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    @TinfoilHat Likewise in midwest. Commented Jun 23 at 4:53
  • 4
    In the UK, many people call the bathroom fitting a [wash]basin and the kitchen one a sink. However, some people use sink for the bathroom fitting as well. (There were some comments about this in response to a recent question.) I thought sink was the term used by plumbers, but a quick look at some plumbers' merchants' websites showed that this isn't the case. Commented Jun 23 at 8:03
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    A basin does not necessarily have a drain hole. Before modern plumbing a basin and a container of water would be used for washing. A sink must have a drain hole.
    – Peter
    Commented Jun 23 at 9:23
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    This has to be regional, somehow, @KateBunting. Or, perhaps generational? I know my American father, who was born in Philadelphia in 1938, would refer to the basins of both kitchen and bathroom as sinks, as do I who learned his English. But clearly other English dialects, including various AmE ones, seem to prefer basin for the one in the bathroom.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:08

4 Answers 4

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2.5-2.3.2.1 Basin Design

  1. Sinks used for hand-washing shall be designed with basins that reduce splashing.
  2. The nominal open area of the basin shall not be smaller than 144 square inches (929.03 square centimeters), with a minimum centerline dimension of 9 inches (58.06 centimeters) in width or length.
  3. Hand-washing sink basins shall be made of vitreous china, porcelain, stainless steel, or solid-surface materials.

(1) The water discharge point of a hand-washing sink faucet shall be at least 8.5 inches (21.59 centimeters) above the bottom of the basin for resident rooms/ ...
https://up.codes/s/hand-washing-sinks

In the US, for the very fussy, the sink is the appliance and the basin is just the bowl. The regulatory hierarchy goes handwashing station, of which a handwashing sink is a part, and the basin is a part of the sink.

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    Wait, what!? So what else would be included by the term sink here? Are you saying that the faucet, for example, is part of the sink? So sink would be the faucet, the pipes, the handles and everything? What is it you are quoting exactly, what's the source? And does this reflect common usage? Personally, I never use basin and would refer to the concave bowl the faucet's water flows into as a sink.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:05
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    For regulatory compliance, if you purchase a compliant sink, the faucet is included with the sink. Otherwise, dimensional compliance can't be guaranteed. Backsplashes, if any, would be included because of dimensional requirements also. If you open the link in my answer, you will see how the regulations are structured; and manufacturers provide items that meet an entire section's worth of requirements. The wash station requirements are focused on useability and human interaction. It includes water temps, ergonomics for accessibility, cleanability, nonslip surfaces, wet area materials, etc.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 23 at 12:54
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    @terdon - Being from the northeastern US, a sink has a bowl-shaped depression and a plumbed drain. A basin doesn't, and needs to be emptied at some point. The source of water is irrelevant. You could carry water to the sink or use the faucet. Commented Jun 24 at 0:48
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    Most people in the East (US), even very fussy ones, would not describe a basin that way. A pedant intent on inflicting humiliation ,or a plumber (not the same thing) might, though. Commented Jun 24 at 0:50
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    As a native speaker of American English, I would say that my intuition about "basin" matches this distinction though I wouldn't have articulated it as such. Generally, "sink" is more likely to be used in everyday contexts, whereas "basin" might be reserved for specific types or technical discussions of sinks, or for geographical features. Whether or not ordinary usage distinguishes the appliance vs. the receptacle, the key overall point is American English definitely does not make a distinction between "sink" and "basin" based on what it is used to wash.
    – nohat
    Commented Jun 25 at 0:58
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With regards to common, as opposed to regulatory, usage, I think most Americans just call then all sinks. Certainly, the item labeled a "hand basin" above is something I would call a bathroom sink.

For further, albeit still somewhat anecdotal, support, see this blog post (by a professional linguist) and the comments. Britain seems to make the same distinction that Australia does, and America just doesn't.

Added later: It's not that Americans don't use the term "basin" at all. My sense is that, because it is rarer, it is perceived as more technical and hence more precise. A sink could be the whole station where you wash stuff (including possibly your hands). But a basin can only be the part with the drain. If you want to avoid having to clarify "no, I just mean the sink itself", you might say "basin". And this tracks exactly with the regulatory documentation cited in another answer.

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  • Please explain 'regulatory English'. Commented Jun 24 at 13:43
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    Great link! And, yes, generally, UK uses 'sink' for utilitarian (kichen, laundry...) and larger units and 'basin' for smaller, personal units (bathroom, bedroom).
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:48
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    @EdwinAshworth - referring to previously posted answer by Phil Sweet, I think.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:50
  • @EdwinAshworth American “regulatory” has the force of law, but regulations may apply to a state or to the entire country, if federal. What the regulators can do if regulations are violated varies enormously.
    – Xanne
    Commented Jun 24 at 19:22
  • Thanks, Xanne. Obviously, these regulated usages involve stipulative definitions, well off-topic on ELU (one wants to avoid being sued for suggesting a definition that falls foul of legalese). But equally, one wants to know how the terms are usually used. Commented Jun 24 at 22:03
9

Basin probably arises from baccīnus, ‑um, and to be a derivative of bacca ‘vas aquārium’ - a water vessel. The word dates back to the 13th century. (from OED)

The OED gives

Basin I.1.a. A circular vessel of greater width than depth, with sloping or curving sides, used for holding water and other liquids, especially for washing purposes.

NB: Other than tipping out the water, there was no way of emptying the basin.

A sink, on the other hand was

I.1.a. A pool or pit formed in the ground for collecting waste water, sewage, etc.; a cesspool. Later spec.: a temporary latrine, as dug on an army campsite.

1413–14 In reparacione Infirmarii..emendacione de le synk, 10 d. in J. T. Fowler, Extracts Account Rolls of Abbey of Durham (1898) vol. I. 268 (Middle English Dictionary)

It then became the means of empty waste into a pool or pit:

I.1.b. A conduit, drain, or pipe for carrying away dirty water or sewage; a sewer. Also: an opening specially made for this purpose. Now rare (English regional in later use).

1499 Cynke of a Lawere, mergulus. Promptorium Parvulorum (Pynson) sig. cv/1

However, between these meaning, there was also

II. A basin used for washing.

II.4.a.A fixed basin made of stone, metal, or other material, designed to hold water for washing and having an outflow pipe; esp. (in later use) such a basin with a water supply.

Traditionally associated with the kitchen but also used (esp. now) to denote basins in bathrooms, laundries, etc.

1440 Synke, for water receyvynge, exceptorium. Promptorium Parvulorum (Harley MS. 221) 456

?c1450In the Chaumber over the Parlor..a lede, a synke. in Archaeologia (1869) vol. 42 404 (Middle English Dictionary)

2005 She did not keep a very neat kitchen—dishes were mounded in the sink. New Yorker 9 May 74/1

The essential difference between a basin and a sink is that a sink can be drained via a hole (usually in the bottom) and has a pipe that provides an outlet for the water that is then conveyed to a suitable place.

However, that was the early difference. Currently, we have indoor plumbing and the two words merged and overlapped to a great extent and became confused. That said, even today, a basin is often used for the container (usually plastic) that is placed in the sink.

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  • Contrast pudding basin with sink hole. The former is a cooking vessel which doesn't have a drain, while the latter is all about draining, without necessarily being a vessel. Commented Jun 24 at 17:00
  • I don't have access to the OED, but I can't believe that it doesn't also include a definition of basin as the plumbed-in fixture. Commented Jun 26 at 8:02
  • @KateBunting - Under the entry for "basin" there is no mention of plumbing of any sort.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 26 at 8:24
  • That's very strange, because the first definition from 'Oxford Languages' found by a Google search is BRITISH. A bowl for washing, typically attached to a wall and having taps connected to a water supply; a washbasin. Commented Jun 26 at 12:42
  • @KateBunting and hence: However, that was the early difference. Currently, we have indoor plumbing and the two words merged and overlapped to a great extent and became confused. I assume that 'Oxford Languages' does not have historical meanings and definitions.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 27 at 9:36
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To add to the points already made, in my experince, a kitchen sink may have one or two bowls, but a bowl is a singular item.

The other point would be, that in rare cases a bowl might not have a drainer, but a sink always would. For example at a camp site, or a temporary military facility, one might wash in a bowl that needs to be thrown away manually, but that would not be called a sink.

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    I think you meant to say basin?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25 at 10:29
  • @Mari-LouA bowl and basin are pretty much interchangeable.
    – MikeB
    Commented Jun 25 at 15:52
  • Don't forget there's also the toilet bowl, I wouldn't recommend washing your hands in one. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25 at 17:48

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