Just to clarify, I'm not talking about the Lush product of the same name.

In Australia, the washing up fairy is a mythical creature. People leave their dishes unwashed overnight, and lo and behold, the next morning the dishes are clean thanks to the washing up fairy.

Sadly, she (I assume it's a she) is more often noted in her absence than her presence. As in "The washing up fairy didn't come, I'll have to do the dishes now."

An example of her being mentioned:

Her theory is simple – we must replace the behaviours we don’t want with those we do. For example, leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen bench for the washing-up fairy to tidy should be replaced with loading the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

Her existence has been documented neither by Wiktionary nor Urban Dictionary.

Is her distribution limited to Australia, and presumably New Zealand, plus the households of those who have moved from these countries?

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    She lives in England too, or at least my part of it. – Roaring Fish Oct 1 '12 at 10:45
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    Are you asking if there are references in other than Australian English literature? If you are talking about her distribution, then I'm afraid the Q. is out of scope on ELU. – Kris Oct 1 '12 at 10:50
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    The laundry fairy is quite often mentioned in my part of the UK (commonly in acrimonious discussions between men and women); no doubt the two are closely related. – TimLymington Oct 1 '12 at 12:07
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    Here in the Netherlands, we don't have specialised fairies for different tasks, we just let the kabouters (gnomes) do everything. Clean up, hoover, wash the dishes, do the laundry, the works. – Mr Lister Oct 1 '12 at 13:46
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    The arch-nemesis of the cleaning fairy is "Mr Nobody". Mr Nobody makes a mess and the cleaning fairy has to clean it up. – Coomie Oct 2 '12 at 1:12

In my opinion, "dish-washing fairy" is not a set phrase, idiom, etc at all.

In my family growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s the topic of "the fairies", but also "the pixies", we were often told were not going to come along when we weren't looking and do various tasks we were too lazy to do ourselves, including but not limited to washing the dishes.

Whether these mentions ever included the specific phrasing "washing-up fairy", I don't specifically recall, I don't think so. But while this way to say it was a bit novel to me, the concept was very familiar.

Thus it seems the "washing-up fairy" concept could be expressed many ways such as "The pixies aren't going to come and wash your dishes for you." In Wiktionary jargon we would say "washing-up fairy" is just "sum of parts", meaning it's not a lexical item. It's more like "red car" than "red herring".

It seems from the other answers that the concept is not limited to Australia.

So I would answer The concept of the washing-up fairy does exist outside Australia but the term "washing-up fairy" doesn't really exist even within Australia.

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    Sum of parts – Andrew Grimm Oct 2 '12 at 5:57
  • Come to think of it, we didn't used to say "washing up" in Australia when I was a kid. We said "the dishes". "Washing up" sounds American to me. I wouldn't be surprised if Aussies have picked up this term from American TV though. When I'm back in Australia I'll listen for it. Then again, John Lawler, says "washing up" isn't of American origin either! I would've said everything he says applied to Australia too! "wash the dishes", "do the dishes" etc. – hippietrail Oct 4 '12 at 5:32
  • Yes so I have learned. I thought we just do the dishes in Australia too. Maybe I should ask a question about where "the washing up" comes from. – hippietrail Oct 4 '12 at 11:15
  • Google Ngrams suggests "the washing up" may be British, but it's tricky to search for so inconclusive so far. – hippietrail Oct 4 '12 at 11:23
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    @hippietrail I have never heard an American refer to 'the washing up'. In fact, 'the dishes' sounds extremely American to me. (I live in England.) – Aeon Akechi Dec 27 '16 at 17:31

I'm in the U.S., and I've never heard of the Washing-Up Fairy. Still, using a fairy to explain an unexplained yet serendipitous discovery is not unheard of. When I Googled "a fairy came and cleaned", I found:

  • my mother would call me the next day, “Oh! a Fairy came and cleaned the house” [in a Yahoo! answer]

  • “Let's pretend a fairy came and cleaned up your room.” [from a parenting book]

  • Every morning, it's as if a fairy came and cleaned the house for me. [from a Roomba vacuum review on amazon.com]

  • Miraculously, when I came downstairs I found that a fairy came and cleaned up the party mess inside (thank you Daddy!) [from a 2004 blog]

So, such "pay-it-forward" cleaning acts of kindness are often attributed to fairy folk. I never realized until today, though, that the Tooth Fairy had a cousin called the Washing Up Fairy, at least by those Down Under.

  • This becomes more and more interesting! I have to ask... did Fairy washing-up liquid ever make it to the USA? – Roaring Fish Oct 1 '12 at 11:56
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    I've heard similar phrases to what your search turned up, most commonly "cleaning fairy", as well as more specific variants like "Laundry Fairy" or "Dishes Fairy". I think the biggest impediment to hearing the exact phrase in AmEng would be that the sub-phrase washing up itself is uncommon. – Dan Neely Oct 1 '12 at 13:47
  • @RoaringFish -- I'm afraid I've never heard of it. In fact, I've never seen or heard of any product labelled as a "washing-up liquid" for sale in the U.S. Dishwashing liquid and dishwasher liquid both occur, but on different types of product. And Fairy would not be a good brand name choice for the U.S. market, for various reasons. – John Lawler Oct 1 '12 at 17:59
  • I'm in the US and i've heard of simply the "dish fairy" when people are talking about others leaving dirty dishes around. Usually the discussion is around someone expecting others to clean up after themselves. – Andy Oct 1 '12 at 21:09
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    Personally, I've always referred to "elves" rather than "fairies" for semi-mythical and unseen performers of household chores. "Brownies" would be understood too. But in my home, the "laundry elves" are always leaving notes about things like Kleenex left in pants pockets.... they get to keep all the loose change found in the washing machine as payment.... – RBerteig Oct 1 '12 at 22:28

In the U.S. the phrase for cleaning the dishes after a meal is to wash the dishes (generically, to wash dishes). The action nominalization is dishwashing (with or without hyphen or space) in either case.

One can say wash up instead of wash the dishes, in context, but wash up in the U.S. is just one more phrasal verb and does not have the specific connotation it does in the UK (rather like fry up, which in the US just means to fry things until they're done, and is never nominalized as a fry-up). Wash up in the U.S. can also mean to wash oneself (short of a full bath or shower), or to wash one's hands preparatory to a meal; it can form the action nominalization a wash-up, but this is more likely to refer to handwashing than dishwashing.

As to fairies in the U.S, I am personally a firm devotee of the Parking Fairy, and, influenced by Fairiology as presented in Pratchett's Hogfather, I have recently come to discern the importance of the Traffic Fairy in our lives; many U.S. children believe in the Tooth Fairy; and Jim McCawley used to say, of some people, that "the Mind Fairy must have come and left a quarter under their pillow".

So, while most Americans will understand the washing up fairy as it's intended to be understood, if they hear it -- particularly if it's delivered in a non-American accent -- Americans don't normally use that phrase.

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    I think "washing up" in the U.S. only means washing your own hands, rather than washing something else like dishes. – Mechanical snail Oct 1 '12 at 19:56
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    I think I'm going to start spreading the "mind fairy" meme. I like that. – RBerteig Oct 1 '12 at 22:30

In Canada, I've often heard the phrase "dish-washing fairy". For example, if you visit your parent's place for dinner and your Mom says "Gee it would be really nice if a dish-washing fairy appeared and helped out in the kitchen (hint hint)".

After reading the other answers, it seems like the exact name of this "fairy" varies a bit, but the concept seems much more universal.

  • Funny, I'm in Canada and have never heard of the "dish washing fairy" -- though the concept is not unfamiliar. – JAM Oct 1 '12 at 14:41
  • @JAM: It might be less common than I thought. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 1 '12 at 14:57

I have not heard of this fairy. It does not exist in Norway where I live. Although a quite similar creature do exist, and is called "dishwasher":

  • Have you heard instead of Magic Laundry Basket, which @Andrew_Grimm mentions in his comment above? According to his source, it should be a term in Norway. – Paola Oct 1 '12 at 13:30
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    @Paola: Well, yes. That is a well known phenomena, but is related only to laundry, not to washing up. In many cases, it is even not required to be put in the laundry basket, but more like left on the "magic floor" where clothes left at the floor is magically cleaned and put in place. – awe Oct 1 '12 at 13:41
  • Wow! Is it possible to export such a miracle to Italy? We don't have anything similar and my life would improve tremendously if clothes were "magically" cleaned, maybe even ironed, and put in place... – Paola Oct 1 '12 at 13:45
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    While amusing, this is not actually a useful answer. The OP is obviously asking about the phrase, not a literal magical creature. (Well, it was obvious to me, at least.) – Marthaª Oct 1 '12 at 16:54
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    This ideally ought to be a comment, but then you wouldn't be able to include the image - you'd only be able to link to it. – Andrew Grimm Oct 1 '12 at 22:03

Searching Google Books Corpus, BNC, COCA, and WebLSE turned up no hits at all, which suggests that this is a very local usage.

Plain old Google with a filter to get rid of the washing-up liquid got a washing-up fairy from University of Warwick in UK though the writer may not be British; GardenGirl who is also UK based; a washing-up fairy competition in UK, and a Staffordshire based blogger.

Based on this, I think she is a low-profile UK/Australian fairy.

  • ... or a fairy that doesn't have this precise title as the only or major way of referring to it. – hippietrail Oct 4 '12 at 5:37

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