A journalist recently posed a question that also puzzled me: Why aren’t there any washcloths in Italy? I don't have the answer. In fact, I had difficulty even finding a specific Italian word for the humble but handy washcloth.
Asciugamano da viso (towel used to wash one’s face) comes close. Some friends use salvietta, although my dictionary translates it as “table-napkin.” A salviettina is a small towel; salviettina igenica, a sanitary napkin. Hotels provide an asciugamano ospite (guest towel about the the size of a washcloth but usually placed on or near the bidet as if to imply a specific purpose).
So why aren't washcloths popular in Italy? Some suggest a general preference for a more “personal” alternative, such as a sponge (spugna), brush (spazzola da doccia o da bagno) or loofah (spugna esfoliante). I have wondered whether the use of shower gel or liquid soap rather than a bar of soap (saponetta) might eliminate the need for a washcloth to create soapsuds (schiuma).
The washcloth dilemma isn't the only sudsy subject that can cause a linguistic lather. The Italian word lavare can refer to washing anything, from the car or the cat. You use the reflexive verb lavarsi—as in mi lavo for “I wash myself” to refer to washing one’s body or lavarsi le mani for washing one’s hands. The same is true for drying (asciugamento). You would asciugare (dry) a glass but asciugarsi (dry yourself). And what do you use? Un asciugamano (a “dry-hand” or towel).
Different types of washing require different vessels. You wash your face in a lavandino (wash basin), your clothes in a lavatrice (washing machine) and your plates in a lavapiatti or lavastoviglie (dishwasher). If you want clean linen (bucato perfetto), a lavanderia (laundry) can wash, dry clean, iron and fold it. You can also use a lavanderia a gettone (coin operated self-service launderette).
Cleansing also takes on less literal meanings. Lavare la testa (literally to wash the head) means to purify. In Italian as in English, una mano lava l’altro (one hands washes the other). And if you violate the rules, you can expect una buona lavata di capo (literally, a good washing of the head or a scolding).
Words and Expressions
Acqua e sapone –- soap and water, a clean wholesome appearance
Una faccia acqua e sapone -- fresh and simple, no make-up, a wholesome girl-next-door type
Asciutamente -– dryly, sharply, curtly
Asciuttezza –- dryness, sterility
Essere a secco -– to be dry (penniless)
Lavare a secco -– to dry clean
Lavare a freddo –- to wash cold
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.