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Whitewash is a closed compound word that has a literal meaning and a figurative or idiomatic meaning. Compounds or compound words are words that are derived from two separate words joined together, a closed compound word does not contain a space or hyphen. We will examine the meaning of the word whitewash both literally and figuratively, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

Today, the word whitewash is most often used as an idiom to mean to hide, conceal or cover up something such as a crime or an incident that may reflect unfavorably upon someone. One whitewashes something in order to avoid a penalty, a punishment or an embarrassment. One might also whitewash something simply because he is unable to face an unpleasant truth and wishes to gloss over something ugly. While this figurative meaning has been in use since the mid-1700s, the term whitewash has more recently taken on an additional meaning. In media, particularly in film, the portrayal of ethnic characters by Caucasian actors is known as whitewashing and has spawned criticism and outrage. For instance, the movie the Prince of Persia starred Jake Gyllenhaal, someone who is not of Persian descent. The casting of the movie the Last Airbender directed by M. Night Shyamalan involved white actors who depicted the roles of Asian and Inuit characters. These films and others sparked controversy, the creators were accused of racism for not using ethnic actors to portray ethnic characters. A third use of the word whitewash as an idiom is to mean to deprive an opponent of the opportunity to score in a sporting event.

The word whitewash has a literal meaning that goes back to the late 1500s. Whitewash is a type of white paint that is applied to numerous surfaces in order to prevent weathering. Whitewash is generally not as thick as paint and may require several coats in order to achieve the whitening effect. However, whitewash is a cheap alternative to paint that was extremely popular in the 1800s and during the Great Depression. One may whitewash brick, masonry, a house or fence. Whitewash is a chalk paint or a lime wash that may be applied with a paint brush. Whitewash does not last as long as paint, but it is quick and cheap to make and apply. Whitewash may be used as a noun or a verb, related words are whitewashes, whitewashed. whitewashing.


But Erika Watkins said her family “will not allow the senseless murder of Brandon to be whitewashed under … (the) guise of prosecutorial discretion.” (The Colorado Springs Gazette)

It signals to the conscientious citizens of this city, including the descendants of the massacre’s victims, that whitewashing history is still the norm in Oklahoma. (The Tulsa World)

A conversation has recently been stirred up about the whitewashing of roles meant for people of color, when a production of West Side Story was cancelled last month due to white people being cast as Puerto Rican characters. (Broadway World)

No Tom Sawyer trickery was needed to get volunteers to help whitewash a wall Wednesday evening to get it ready for the annual Texas Arts and Music Festival. (The Brenham Banner-Press)