Why Do We Say We’re Going to ‘Mop Up’ Something?

Have you ever heard someone say he needs to ‘mop up’ after fixing a problem? Have you ever heard a business manager say she needed to ‘mop up’ after having to rectify a misunderstanding with a client? Most of us are pretty familiar with the idea of mopping up. It would be curious to know how many people truly understand why we use the phrase though.

The phrase ‘mop up’ is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “to consume eagerly” (British English) or “to gather as if by absorbing” (American English). The first known use of the phrase, as a verb, is circa 1811.

It really comes down to the absorbing properties of a string mop. According to Alsco, a Utah-based linen services provider, string mops are highly absorbent. Their ability to absorb liquid is that which makes them so fit for task. String mops are better for wet mopping than virtually any other kind of mop out there.

How Mopping Up Works

To better understand the mopping up phrase in terms of dealing with the aftermath of a problem, it might help to understand how mopping with a wet mop actually works. Imagine being a restaurant manager cleaning a dirty kitchen floor at the end of the night. You would sweep the floor first.

With floor swept, you would use a wet mop to spread hot, soapy water across a section of the floor. You would rinse and ring out the wet mop while giving the water a minute or two to work. Finally, you would run the mop across the floor to soak up both the water and the dirt.

That is the whole idea of mopping up after problems. You are figuratively soaking up all the dirt and debris left behind. In a business sense, that might mean fixing an order, issuing a refund, or offering a freebie. At home, mopping up after a family argument could mean anything from issuing apologies to taking everybody out for dinner.

Cleaning Rather than Spreading Dirt

Let’s take this one step further and discuss the difference between actual cleaning as compared to spreading dirt around. In our earlier example of cleaning the restaurant floor, consider what happens when the staff doesn’t use a wet mop at the end of the night. Maybe they don’t want to put in the time to wet mop, so they sweep and then run a dry mop across the floor.

The broom and dry mop may get up loose dirt and debris, but neither one is going to address a greasy floor. Neither one will be effective in dealing with that grease by the fryer or the gunk in the corner of the baseboards. All the broom and wet mop will do is spread the grease around. Then the whole floor will be greasy instead of just one small patch.

The same holds true when you are mopping up after problems. Oftentimes the need to mop up is necessitated by hurt feelings, anger, etc. If you don’t put in the time and effort to effectively mop up, all you do is spread the negativity around. Things may appear to be settled for now, but the ugliness is likely to rear its head at some point in the future.

Now you know why we use the phrase ‘mopping up’ to talk about fixing problems. Next time you have to mop up a disaster of your own, remember the tried-and-true string mop and how well it does cleaning a restaurant floor. The analogy is truly uncanny in its resemblance.