[ hwahyt-wosh, -wawsh, wahyt- ]
/ ˈʰwaɪtˌwɒʃ, -ˌwɔʃ, ˈwaɪt- /
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See synonyms for: whitewash / whitewashed / whitewashing on Thesaurus.com

Definition of whitewash

a composition, as of lime and water or of whiting, size, and water, used for whitening walls, woodwork, etc.
anything, as deceptive words or actions, used to cover up or gloss over faults, errors, or wrongdoings, or absolve a wrongdoer from blame.
Sports Informal. a defeat in which the loser fails to score.
verb (used with object)
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Origin of whitewash

First recorded in 1585–95; white + wash


white·wash·er, nounwhite·wash·ing, nounun·white·washed, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What does whitewash mean?

To whitewash is to intentionally hide some kind of wrongdoing, error, or unpleasant situation—or deal with it in a way that attempts to make it seem less bad than it is.

Whitewash can also be used as a noun referring to the deceptive words or actions used to cover something up in this way.

These figurative senses of the word come from its original, literal meaning: to cover or whiten with whitewash—a paintlike substance used to whiten surfaces like walls and wood. The word sometimes simply means to paint something white. (A classic passage in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain involves Tom Sawyer tricking other boys into whitewashing a fence for him.)

The metaphor used in the figurative sense of the word is that of painting over flaws to cover them up instead of actually fixing them. This often involves only superficially addressing the problem, trying to distract from it, or trying to change the subject. The verb phrases gloss over and cover up are used in similar ways.

Example: The PR team has continually tried to whitewash the scandal by suggesting that the company was a victim of its own CEO’s negligence.

More recently, the word whitewash has become a slang term meaning to cast a white actor to play a character of color, such as in a TV show or movie. For example, if a movie were made based on a comic book in which a character was Asian, casting a white actor to play that character would be an instance of whitewashing.

Whitewash is also used in situations in which members of a marginalized group are excluded or erased through substitution with members of the dominant cultural group, such as in fictional representations of historical events.

The adjective whitewashed is sometimes used in a negative way to describe people of color whose identity or personality is thought to be more like that of their white peers than that of other people with the same cultural identity, especially when they primarily associate with white people. The term is typically used by people of color to criticize other people of color, such as those in immigrant or communities who are thought to have assimilated to the dominant white culture without maintaining many or any elements of their own cultural identity.

Example: Finally, we get a film in which we see a realistic depiction of the Black and Indigenous women behind the movement—not a version of the story that has been whitewashed by Hollywood.

Where does whitewash come from?

The first records of the word whitewash come from the late 1500s. It started to be used in a figurative way around the 1700s. (The more recent term greenwash is modeled on whitewash and refers to a superficial concern for environmental matters that is displayed by a company or organization to make it appear environmentally friendly.)

The sense of whitewash that involves downplaying, minimizing, or brushing off faults, problems, or negative information is especially used in the context of official political and corporate communications intended to hide scandalous information. Such words and actions are intended to deceptively cover over (or cover up) faults and scandals, not repair them—hence the metaphor. Things that have been whitewashed in this way can be said to have been swept under the rug (another expression based on a metaphor that involves hiding negative things).

The more recent sense of whitewash typically uses the word white in reference to white people. The term references the long history of white actors being hired instead of Black actors and other people of color due to racism, and the lack of representation that has resulted from it.

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What are some other forms related to whitewash?

  • whitewashing (continuous tense verb, noun)
  • whitewasher (noun)

What are some synonyms for whitewash?

What are some words that share a root or word element with whitewash

What are some words that often get used in discussing whitewash?

How is whitewash used in real life?

The figurative senses of whitewash are typically used in serious and critical ways.





Try using whitewash!

Which of the following words is NOT a synonym of whitewash?

A. expose
B. cover up
C. minimize
D. suppress

How to use whitewash in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for whitewash

/ (ˈwaɪtˌwɒʃ) /

a substance used for whitening walls and other surfaces, consisting of a suspension of lime or whiting in water, often with other substances, such as size, added
informal deceptive or specious words or actions intended to conceal defects, gloss over failings, etc
informal a defeat in a sporting contest in which the loser is beaten in every match, game, etc in a seriesthey face the prospect of a whitewash in the five-test series
verb (tr)
to cover or whiten with whitewash
informal to conceal, gloss over, or suppress
informal to defeat (an opponent or opposing team) by winning every match in a series

Derived forms of whitewash

whitewasher, noun
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012