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

Chakrapong Worathat/EyeEm/Getty Images

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. 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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