Spotless or squalid? (Words for ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’)

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by Kate Woodford

COVID-19 has made us all very aware of how clean our hands and surfaces are. With cleanliness in mind, we thought it might be a good time to look at the language around being clean and being dirty.

Starting with ‘clean’ words, the adjective hygienic means ‘clean and therefore unlikely to cause illness’: Food must be prepared and stored in hygienic conditions. The opposite is unhygienic and the noun is hygiene. Two common collocations are standards of hygiene and personal hygiene: Poor standards of hygiene were found in over a third of hospital kitchens. / People’s idea of personal hygiene differs.

A place or thing that is extremely clean may be described as spotless or immaculate: You should see Klara’s kitchen – it’s spotless! / She was dressed in an immaculate white suit.

Something that is extremely clean and looks as if it hasn’t been used is sometimes described as pristine: You could always sell the trainers – they’re in pristine condition.

Something that is bright and shiny from being cleaned may be said to be gleaming: Jamie drove up in a gleaming red car. / gleaming hair / gleaming white teeth

Conditions that are sterile are completely clean and free from bacteria: All procedures are carried out in sterile conditions.

Moving on to ‘dirty’ words, (of which there are rather more), something that is extremely dirty may be described as filthy: The kitchen was absolutely filthy.

The adjectives squalid and sordid mean ‘very unpleasant’ as well as ‘very dirty’ and are usually applied to places where people live: Inside the home, conditions were squalid. / She couldn’t wait to leave the sordid apartment.

There are a few informal adjectives for ‘dirty’ that end in ‘y’. Something that is dirty and unpleasant can be described as scuzzy: The cushions looked a bit old and scuzzy. Grubby and grungy describe things that are rather dirty and need to be washed: These towels look a bit grubby. / He was wearing a grungy old T-shirt and jeans. Something that is covered in mud or dirt might be described as mucky: Could you take your mucky boots off before you come in?

A dingy place, meanwhile, is dark and looks dirty: The hall, painted brown, looked dingy and unwelcoming.

Something that is grimy has a dark layer of dirt on it: This sink could do with a clean. It looks a bit grimy.

Finally, a place that is unsanitary is dirty and therefore likely to cause disease: It’s no surprise that people get ill when they live in such unsanitary conditions.


19 thoughts on “Spotless or squalid? (Words for ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’)

  1. MO Nou

    I really learned and memorized all this words once that’s I suppose it’s the best way to learn vocabularies.

  2. FHK

    Fantastic piece. Another word frequently being used in this context nowadays is “soiled”. For example: care home workers were incongruously asked by the authority to use face masks until they get soiled.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you. And yes, a good addition to this vocabulary set. I tend to think of this word in a slightly restricted context – used about shop goods, for example.

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