This just in … well, you could at least wipe your feet.
Dear Word Detective: I am looking for the origin of the phrase “hot wash,” which is used in the emergency management world to refer to an informal debrief or discussion after an exercise or emergency response. So for example, “After the derecho-response exercise, the participants conducted a brief hot wash to review the results.” — Ken Lerner.
Derecho response? I’ve spent the last few minutes trying to figure out a way to convey a rueful laugh in print (“heh … hehhehheh”?), but we’ll just have to pretend this column has sound effects. We had two derechos (which is the Spanish word for “straight,” referring to the 80-plus mph straight-line winds of these storms) in quick succession around here a year ago. The first knocked out our power for eight days and the second deposited several huge trees on our lawn. Our “derecho response” consisted of sitting in the sweltering darkness eating peanut butter from the jar and chanting our ancient meditation mantra (“I can’t believe this is happening”) several thousand times. I say our mantra is “ancient” because it got really old after a few days. And I now hate peanut butter. Thanks a lot, Weather Gods.
According to the official FEMA Glossary (FEMA being the people who put the electrodes in your cousin Artie’s brain, of course), “hot wash” means “… a facilitated discussion held immediately following an exercise among exercise players … designed to capture feedback about any issues, concerns, or proposed improvements players may have about the exercise.” So a “hot wash” is a kind of “immediately after the action” debriefing, a slightly more formal “So, how’d it go?” session. Some sources use the term “cold wash” to mean a more detailed review conducted at a later date.
The term “hot wash” (which is sometimes rendered as one word, “hotwash”) originated in the US military, where it is used as an informal equivalent of “After Action Review,” the debriefing of personnel immediately after they return from a mission, patrol, etc. Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio language program A Way with Words (www.waywordradio.org), listed “hot wash” in his Official Dictionary of Unofficial English back in 2005. The first example he found in print was from 1991 (“The day the fighting ended, senior Army aides presented to Army Chief of Staff Carl E. Vuono their first observations on the operation. Such an initial review of a just-concluded operation is called a ‘hot wash.’,” LA Times). In his dictionary entry, Grant notes that “This term appears to be migrating out of the military, where it originated,” and the years since have proven him right. “Business leadership” websites are in love with the term, and some even offer free Powerpoint (of course) presentation slides you can use to browbeat your desperate employees into pretending they value and enjoy the “hot wash” process after every meeting with clients. (Have I ever mentioned how much I loathe management consultants?)
For a term that seems to have popped up in the early 1990s, “hot wash” is a bit of a puzzle, and I’ve found no authoritative explanation of its origin. One clue to the term may lie in the fact that the process is apparently often called a “hot wash-up,” which might indicate that it came from the idea of a discussion taking place while soldiers literally “washed up” (with soap and water) just after returning to base. That the participants would still be “hot” from exertion, or that their experience in the field would be “hot” in the sense of “fresh,” might also play a role in the phrase.
It’s also possible that the phrase originally referred to washing off a horse after a race or a day of hard work. The popularity of the phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” (meaning “not properly cared for,” referring to an exhausted horse being put back in its stall while still sweaty and ungroomed, which can make a horse very sick) might have contributed to “hot wash.”
Yet another possibility is that the source is a more figurative use of “wash,” specifically in the sense found in the phrase “to come out in the wash,” which first appeared in print in the early 1900s meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “(of the truth) to be revealed, become clear; (of a situation, events, etc.) to be resolved or put right eventually.” The “wash” in “come out in the wash” is a metaphorical laundering process, and that figurative sense of “wash” may play a role in “hot wash.”