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Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Q From Sarah Balfour: I’m actually rather surprised you don’t already have an entry for this but what, in your expert etymological opinion, is the origin of the phrase don’t throw the baby out with the bath water? The oft-quoted origin, that babies in medieval times were bathed last, when the water was pitch-black and dirty enough that an infant could be lost in it, is complete pig-swill. Why wash a vulnerable child in dirty water?

A Is that ancient bit of online folklore still doing the rounds? I thought it had been laughed out of existence at least a decade ago. The only truth in it is that the phrase is indeed ancient, though not originally English.

Like all proverbs, it contains good advice: in your haste to discard something unpleasant or undesirable, don’t throw away something worth keeping.

But Jenkins can’t play too fast and loose with the investment bank. It contributes more than half Barclays’ profits; profits it dearly needs to build up the capital reserves demanded by regulators. Shareholders want to know he won’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Sunday Times, 10 Feb. 2013.

It began life in the German language, and is still popular in the form das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. A comprehensive study of its origins by Wolfgang Mieder was published in 1992. He showed that the first known example is in a satire of 1512 by Thomas Murner with the title Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools). The religious writer Sebastian Franck published a book of proverbs, Spruchwörter, in 1541; he illustrated the principle by the example of sending an old horse to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take its valuable saddle and bridle off first.

Despite these early examples and its wide popularity in German down the following centuries, it appeared in English for the first time as recently as 1849. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle was very well informed about Germany and included a translation of it in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in December that year about the slave trade, which was published as a pamphlet four years later:

The Germans say, “you must empty-out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.” Fling-out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careering down the kennels; but try if you can keep the little child! How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy.

Thomas Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, 1853.

This was a clumsy translation, lacking the force of our usual form. It doesn’t seem to have had any impact on the language — at least my necessarily imperfect searches haven’t turned up another example before the twentieth century. Its popularity is almost certainly due to George Bernard Shaw, who used it many times. The first was in the introduction to his play Getting Married in 1911, though his form then was empty the baby out with the bath.

By the way, there is a more recent US version of the saying: Don’t throw the baby out with the dishes. This has been attributed to presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. It appears online often enough to demonstrate that, though nonsensical, some people think it acceptable or even the correct version. I can’t trace examples before LBJ’s time, but I suspect it was around in the spoken language earlier.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Apr. 2013

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Last modified: 13 April 2013.