It’s a wash is an idiom that became popular in the twentieth century. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom it’s a wash, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.
It’s a wash describes something that comes out even; no one side has an advantage over another or the positive and negative aspects of a situation seem to cancel each other out. For instance, one may go to a casino and win twenty dollars playing roulette and then lose twenty dollars playing slot machines. In this case, the gambler has neither lost nor won money in the long run; his experience may be said to have been a wash. The expression it’s a wash came into use in the early 1900s to mean something disappointing, evoking the image of something washed away. By the mid-twentieth century, the term took on its current meaning of a situation in which there is no net loss or gain. It’s a wash is an American idiom.
In theory, it’s a wash for states — accepting the premium costs them nothing, if they add it to the funds already earmarked to retire debt. (Connecticut Mirror)
If a company issues $100 million in stock options and buys back $100 million worth of shares, it’s a wash; existing shareholders have not benefited. (New Republic)
In other words, when it comes to weighing the heart-health benefits of aspirin to its gastrointestinal risks in this population, for most people, it’s a wash. (Time Magazine)