In Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, volume 2, Darwin's friend Charles Lyell wrote in a letter to him (dated 3rd October 1859):

You enclose your sheets in old MS., so the Post Office very properly charge them as letters, 2 pence extra. I wish all their fines on MS. were worth as much. I paid 4 shillings 6 pence for such wash the other day from Paris, from a man who can prove 300 deluges in the valley of the Seine.

What does Lyell mean by "wash"? Actually, I can't get the meaning of this whole bolded phrase.

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    Hi, I see that although you have been here for a while, you don’t seem to have the ‘Informed’ badge? which suggests you might not have completed the Site Tour. It would be helpful if you could do this, and also check out the Help Center advice on How to ask a good question with particular attention to the requirement to research and share your research. What is there about this sentence that dictionary definitions don’t explain?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 11:15
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    @Spagirl: most dictionaries don't have the relevant meaning of wash. The OED does, but it's behind a paywall. I agree that the OP should have said that he looked in dictionaries and that they didn't help.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 11:17
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    @Spagirl Thanks for your note. Firstly, I couldn't find a suitable meaning of "wash" for this context, and, secondly, I couldn't get the whole meaning of the sentence, even if I know the literal meaning of each single word, and this is something that I can't find in the dictionaries, so I asked for help here. Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 11:58
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    An important bit of context is that postage used to be paid by the recipient, not by the sender (or in addition to the sender). Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 12:04
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    I note what yourself and Peter say about the difficulty of finding the definition in online dictionaries. Wiktionary is a pretty good non-paywall source and indeed has the relevant definition of ‘wash’. en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/wash
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


What this passage means is that Darwin's letters, unlike some letters he receives, are worth paying the extra postage for.

This meaning of wash is in the OED. Here is their definition, along with some examples:

  1. a. Washy or vapid liquor. Also figurative, vapid discourse or writing.

1911 R. Brooke Let. in Memoir (1918) p. lxx To remove it [the sonnet called Lust] would be to overbalance the book still more in the direction of unimportant prettiness. There's plenty of that sort of wash in the other pages for the readers who like it.

b. Nonsense, rubbish, ‘twaddle’.

1913 A. Lunn Harrovians xvii. 287 The Housemasters call their Sixth together at intervals and gass 'em... You know the kind of wash.

The last bit, a man who can prove 300 deluges in the valley of the Seine, may be literal ... maybe he got a letter from a crackpot who believed that he had proof that there had historically been 300 great floods in the valley of the Seine, and wrote Lyell about his theories.

  • Is that meaning connected to ‘hogwash’ (which can also mean nonsense)?
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 21:06
  • @gidds: the OED points to hogwash in its entry, but doesn't say if there's an etymological connection. I suspect that, at least, the two words reinforced each other.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 21:07

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