Take to the cleaners

Take to the cleaners is an idiom that was first seen in the early twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, 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 have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, cut the mustard, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, ankle biter, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. 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. We will examine the meaning of the idiom take to the cleaners, where it may have come from and some examples of its use in sentences.

To take to the cleaners means to take someone’s money, to relieve someone of his fortune or his goods, to take away someone’s goods or livelihood and leave him destitute. People often threaten to take someone to the cleaners when threatening to best them in a gamble, or when threatening to sue them in a legal court. The phrase take to the cleaners most probably evolved from an older idiom, to clean someone out, meaning to strip him of his money. Take to the cleaners came into use when dry cleaning establishments began to crop up in the 1920s. Related phrases are takes to the cleaners, took to the cleaners, taking to the cleaners.


Hamm, who never signed a pre-nuptial agreement with his wife, watched as his ex took him to the cleaners in the form of a protracted media maelstrom and a nearly three-comma windfall.  (Vanity Fair Magazine)

The Wall Street people they’ve been talking to “are taking them to the cleaners, jacking up interest rates,” he said. (The Daily Advertiser)

Behind her public expression of sympathy for Burt, who died of a heart attack on Sept. 6, the former “WKRP in Cincinnati” bombshell is telling friends the “Smokey and the Bandit” hunk was a mean-spirited drug abuser and wife beater — and she’s glad she took him to the cleaners during their ugly divorce!  (The National Enquirer)

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