clean, cleanse

English has many pairs of words with basically the same meaning, but with important differences in meaning and/or usage. The front page of our church’s weekly bulletin today had an illustration of ‘Jesus cleansing the temple’ (John 2:13-22). ‘Cleansing’ basically means ‘cleaning thoroughly’, but ‘Jesus cleaning the temple’ would bring to mind a completely different image. Even though no English translation of that passage actually uses the word ‘cleanse’, the episode is generally referred to in this way; Wikipedia’s article is titled ‘Cleansing of the Temple’. (Compare the fifth labour of Hercules, which is more often called ‘cleaning the Augean stables’ and less often called ‘cleansing …’)

The words have an identical etymology and have existed alongside each other for more than a thousand years. (based on the Random House Dictionary)’s definition of ‘clean’ runs to 49 items, as an adjective, adverb and verb (transitive, intransitive and phrasal), and in idioms; it is undoubtedly the more common and general word. Conversely, its definition of ‘cleanse’ runs to just three items, only as a verb (transitive and intransitive). There is a ‘synonym note’ at ‘clean’:

‘Clean, cleanse refer to removing dirt or impurities. To clean is the general word with no implication of method or means: to clean windows, a kitchen, streets. Cleanse is especially used of thorough cleaning by chemical or other technical process; figuratively it applies to moral or spiritual purification: to cleanse parts of machinery; to cleanse one’s soul of guilt.’

Once I’d started thinking about this word, I kept noticing it throughout the service:

(Prayer of Preparation) ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit’
(Collect [Prayer of the Day]) ‘so that, cleansed from greed and selfishness, we may become a living temple of your love’
(Psalm 19:12) ‘O cleanse me from my secret faults’
(Hymn ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me (Augustus Toplady) ‘Be of sin the double cure, Cleanse me from its guilt and power’

As noted by the dictionary, ‘cleanse’ has a moral or spiritual flavour, and as noted by me is perhaps used more often than average in a ‘liturgical tradition’ church during Lent.

When I got home, a quick look at my wife’s side of the bathroom cabinet revealed a bottle of ‘face cleanser’ (not ‘face cleaner’). Note also that ‘a cleaner’ is firstly a person, secondly a machine and thirdly a detergent or chemical bleach, whereas ‘a cleanser’ is firstly a liquid/powder/cream for kitchen and bathroom surfaces or faces and secondly ‘a person or thing that cleanses’.


2 thoughts on “clean, cleanse

  1. I might have said “cleanse” was more likely to be abstract – you can clean a temple, which brings to mind someone on hands and knees, scrubbing, or you can cleanse it, which might imply getting rid of undesirable behaviours, etc. That’s the difference I’d perceive, anyway.


  2. Yes, certainly! The dictionary ‘synonym note’ says ‘figuratively it applies to moral or spiritual purification’. Jesus’s actions here were certainly aimed at moral or spiritual purification. I also thought briefly about the OT idea of ‘clean animals’, but I’m not theologian enough to comment further about that.


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