Stupid Question ™
May 31, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the word “shampoo”?
A: Ironically, “shampoo” entered English in the mid-1700s, when British hair care consisted of wearing a wig.
However, this was also the era in which the British colonized India. And “shampoo” almost surely comes from the Hindi word campo, the command form of the verb campna (meaning “to press” or “to knead”).
In turn, campna’s roots are showing—its Sanskrit roots, which probably go back to the word capayati, meaning “pounds” or “kneads.”
The link to Hindi is clearer in the variety of early spellings “shampoo” had in English; “shampo,” “champo,” “champoe” and “shampoe” all had their followers. In some cases, the gerund form was written as “champing.”
What does washing one’s hair have to do with pounding or kneading? And why did the wig-wearing British care?
Well, not much. And they didn’t.
Campo is a massage term referring to kneading the muscles. And that’s what “shampoo” originally meant in English: a massage.
This meaning survived in English as late as 1900. Today, it survives only in the lingo of English-speaking Turkish baths (and is dying out there).
Of course, a full massage always includes a scalp massage. As hair care became more fashionable in the mid-1800s, “shampoo” evolved this more specific meaning—a scalp-washing usually accompanied by a massage. The earliest known reference to “shampoo” in this new sense dates to 1860.
Similarly, the related meaning of “liquid soap used in hair-washing” first sprang up around 1866. By the turn of the century, the hair tonic business was in full swing, and entrepreneurs like John Breck established an industry that finally overwhelmed the massage-centric definition of “shampoo.”