observations on rinse and repeat

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Nov 3 06:12:36 UTC 2011

I came across "rinse and repeat" in a blog post today and it occurred to
me that this was a fairly recent expression--late 1980s, by my
reckoning. A quick look at the OED gives 1992.

> N. Amer. colloq. and humorous rinse, repeat: used after a verb
> (originally lather, with reference to the instructions frequently
> found on shampoo labels), to indicate that an action or sequence is
> repeated.
> 1992 Vancouver Sun 12 Feb. d1/3   After that, it's lather, rinse and
> repeat: Back over the mountain, back to the shooting fields then out
> and back again.

Scratching my head a bit further, got me thinking that the original joke
must have come from programming (certainly, that's where I would have
heard it) and that the OED definition misses the punchline: without
external input, it's an infinite loop, which is why the expression is
meant as more humorous than mere "repeat". I suspect, it usually shows
up where the idea is more than mere repetition.

Sure enough, a little digging uncovers just the right background context.

[Below "confirmed" refers only to dates--not to verification of text on

http://goo.gl/KIszH   [snippet view only]
Data Structures and C Programs. By Christopher J. Van Wyk. 1990 [confirmed]
p. 26
> Third, the notion of "well understood steps" includes common sense.
> Some shampoo bottles include these terse directions: "Lather. Rinse.
> Repeat." The literal-minded will point to this as an infinite loop.
> They imagine the obedient consumer thinking: "Let's see. First I apply
> shampoo and lather, then rinse; now it says 'Repeat,' so I apply
> shampoo and lather, then rinse; now it says, 'Repeat' so I ...," until ...

The T Programming Language: A Dialect o LISP. By Stephen Slade. 1987
[Epigraph on a section] p. 149
> Rinse. Repeat.
> *Anon., Shampoo Instructions

Program Design with Pseudocode. 2nd edition. By T. E. Bailey & Kris
Lundgaard. 1986 [confirmed]
> REPETITION, LOOPING, ITERATION The following instructions are taken
> from a shampoo bottle: Wet hair. Apply shampoo. Lather. Rinse. Repeat
> application. These instructions, which describe a process, are stated
> in operations well known to ...

The latter book uses the example to show recursion and different kinds
of loops.

International Journal of Man Machine Studies, Volume 22. 1985 [date
p. 3 [issue unknown]
> For example, consider typical instructions printed on shampoo bottles,
> which read, "Wet hair, apply shampoo, rince and repeat". On an exact
> reading, these instructions are hopelessly imprecise, yet, it is
> highly implausible that any anyone has ever iterated endlessly through
> the loop, forever a prisoner in a shower stall. Our actions are
> governed not only by the instructions, but by inferences about the
> instructor's intentions.
p. 8 [issue unknown]
> ...if he were to read a shampoo bottle with directions like, "Wet
> hair, apply shampoo, rinse and repeat", he wouldn't know which step to
> repeat (he'd wonder if that meant he should just keep rinsing, or if
> he had to wet his hair again,

The fact that two different papers managed to use the same examples
points to the fact that it was quite ubiquitous in the field--and
possibly had a common source beyond mere observations. [There are
actually more similar examples from the same context from 1985-1991,
e.g., Fortran 77 for Humans (1986), Pascal Precisely(1989).] It's rather
obvious that the "lather-rinse-repeat" sequence, by 1990, was as
ubiquitous in teaching concepts in computer science as it was on shampoo

Systems Design For, With, and By the Users: Proceedings of the IFIP WG
9.1 Working Conference on Systems Design for, with, and by the Users,
Riva del Sole, Italy, 20-24 September 1982. Springer: 1983
p. 153
> A simple example: "Wet hair, apply shampoo, /rinse/, and /repeat/."
> Without contextual knowledge ("which action is appropriate in a
> situation like this") and the ability of meta-communication ("I will
> ask someone who knows") a "user" of a shampoo bottle with these
> instructions would go on washing his or her hair till eternity.

Tutorial: Human Factors in Software Development. By Bill Curtis. 1981
p. 213
> For example, shampoo labels typically state: "Wet hair, apply shampoo,
> rinse, and repeat." As it stands, this procedure creates an eternal
> loop, but it is doubtful we would find many bathers forever cycling
> through such a

But maybe I was wrong. There is a strong likelihood that I heard the
comment about "lather. rinse. repeat." at MIT in the mid-1980s, but it
may well have been not in connection with programming (although it was a
running joke with computer science majors).

The Atlantic. 1983 [p. 44 of unknown issue; year likely, but not confirmed]
> (The linguist Jerrold Sadock has noted the complexity of the
> inferences associated even with simple instructions like "Wet hair,
> lather, rinse, repeat," which we would paraphrase in ordinary English
> as "First you wet your hair, then you lather it with this stuff, then
> you rince it off, then you lather it again--your hair is already wet
> now, after all--and then you rince the stuff off again.") The best way
> to learn the skills of reading and listening that everybody needs in
> order to participate fully in society is to imitate

So, are any computer people or linguists willing to admit remembering
the example from the 1980s and where they first learned it?

National Lampoon. 1991 [unknown page and issue; year confirmed]
> Observational humor teaches us that no crumb is too small for kneading
> into the bread of comedy: Examples: . On shampoo bottles they say
> lather, rinse, repeat. But they don't say when to stop.

This may very well have been the vector that made the expression viral.

Or not:

Asiaweek. 1991 [preview--no snippet showing text, date not confirmed]
> They neglected to Learn From Shampoo, whose makers reap rich profits
> from the classic line: lather, rinse, REPEAT.

It also does not appear that the example was new even in the mid-80s.

An Introduction to Computer-based Library Systems. By Lucy A. Tedd. 1977
> Time flies like an arrow. Even when instructions are given in English
> some human intuition is required to understand them. The instructions
> on how to use some hair shampoo might be: Wet hair; Apply shampoo ;
> Rinse ; Repeat.

Technology, the Labor Process, and the Working Class: Essays. By Rosalyn
Fraad Baxandall. 1976 [confirmed]
p. 7
> For example, the directions on cake-mix boxes and shampoo (open
> bottle, wet hair, work in shampoo, rinse, repeat) have a remarkable
> similarity to the directions which Braverman quotes from industrial
> and office work.

The only problem, the example here--and in Sadock's example--lacks
recursion. In contrast, the National Lampoon sample joke makes it explicit.

There is evidence that by 1986, the joke had not yet spread--the "rinse
and repeat" line was being used as an example of marketing genius.

Imponderables: The Solution to the Mysteries of Everyday Life. By David
Feldman. 1986 [GB has paperback from 1987]
> One company, a maker of "mild" shampoo, told /Imponderables/ that it
> has repositioned its Neutrogea from an everyday product (with
> directions to apply the shampoo only once) to a non-everyday product
> ("rinse and repeat"). Notice that Neutrogena did not change the
> formula of its shampoo, but merely repositioned its marketing.
> Obviously, many will still use Neutrogena on a daily basis, but will
> now, as instructed, apply it twice rather than once. Neutrogena will
> probably sell more shampoo as a result. One shampoo, Ivory, from
> Procter & Gamble, specifies to repeat the application "if necessary."
> It isn't clear how someone in a misty shower is supposed to figure out
> if a second application is necessary, but Procter & Gamble cannot be
> accused of false labeling.

So, there are four elements to this paradigm.

First, you need the "industrial" language that introduces the expression
[on shampoo labels]. Second, you need recognition of the expression as
having become ubiquitous [on labels], to the point of making it into
everyday speech. Third, there is recognition of the ambiguity by someone
with a background in such matters--a linguist or a computer scientist.
Finally, you need the inversion--taking the wrong meaning as the more
"obvious", presumably as an attempt at humor. Even after that, there is
still a need for a vector to make the "joke" popular before the
abbreviated version can become idiomatic. It's possible that, somewhere
along the way, there was a "shortcut"--Carson or Letterman using the
"joke" on a nightly program, thus serving as an earlier vector. But that
likely would have left more footprints. So, for now, I'm sticking with
my version.

Given the data, one also might suppose that the ubiquitous shampoo label
made a splash some time around 1975. That error can be swept aside
rather easily:

Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists: Volume 23. 1972 [date
consistent, but not verified]
p. 190
> All three products were packed in identical 6.5-fl. oz. plastic
> bottles. Label instructions called for at least once-a-week use at
> home and gave the following instructions in product usage:
> "Lather-Rinse-Repeat"

Mademoiselle: Volume 73. 1971 [Preview--no snippet; date consistent, but
not verified]
> You rub it right on hair, work up a lather, rinse, repeat yourself and
> --- gleam. It's detergentless, doesn't dry up natural oils that fine,
> parched or color- treated hair can't afford to lose in the wash.

Note that, so far, I've discovered not one volume that would antedate
the expression beyond 1992. All of them are quite literal, even the
National Lampoon one. Interestingly, industrial manuals for the same
period show wide use of similar instructions, but they are much more
specific, e.g., "Repeat the rinsing step several more times." (Yes, I
know, it's really a bit open-ended with "several", but it's not a
potential infinite loop.)

New York Magazine, April 20, 1992, just misses the Vancouver Sun piece


I could not find anything directly relevant in GB or GNA, although the
phrase "Lather. Rinse. Repeat." first shows up in 1927, but with a twist.

The Border Cities Star - Aug 8, 1927
Beauty Chats. By Edna Kent Forbes. p. 9/7
> Wet the head all over, drip on some soap syrup, lather, rinse. Repeat,
> rinse, repeat a third time and rinse. Let this last rinse be fairly
> warm and squeeze into the water the juice of one good sized lemon.

This is one is much more literal (and less industrial).


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