Issue 28 – Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater – but Why Would I?

Proverb is a common type of idiom intended to pass on ancient wisdoms, and is usually expressed as warnings. Out of all the “don’t” proverbs, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” seems the easiest to agree with. This bizarre slang has no doubt provoked our curiosity – how people came up with that?

This English proverb derives from the German idiom, “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten”, which was first recorded in Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner in 1512. The book includes the following illustration of a lady discarding bathwater together with a baby inside:

The myth was that in medieval times, people only bathed once a year. On top of that, they bathed in the same water without changing it. They also had to follow an order: the adult males would bath first, then the females, leaving the children and babies to go last. By the time the babies got in, the water was so murky that the tiny baby was in danger of being thrown out unnoticed. 

The idiom thus takes on this meaning: “Don’t get rid of valuable things along with the unnecessary ones”. In 1849, Thomas Carlyle, a British historian and satirical writer, adapted the concept in an essay about slavery: “And if true, it is important for us, in reference to this Negro Question and some others. 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 careening down the kennels; but try if you can keep the little child!”. Carlyle reminded readers to avoid harming the slaves while fighting to end slavery. He employed the idiom flawlessly to stress on the importance of holding onto kindness while pursuing injustice. 

The idiom can also be used in a casual way, especially when giving advice. For example, if your friend is considering dropping out of school because of the stress from a course, you can say, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! You are going to miss your friends and all the amazing activities.” It also makes an excellent excuse to keep your “valuables” when your parents insist that you clean the mess in your room.

See other “Don’t…” proverbs:

  • Don’t cast your pearls before swine
  • Don’t change horses in midstream
  • Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched
  • Don’t get mad, get even
  • Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face
  • Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself
  • Don’t let the cat out of the bag
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Don’t put the cart before the horse
  • Don’t shut the stable door after the horse has bolted
  • Don’t throw good money after bad
  • Don’t try to teach your Grandma to suck eggs
  • Don’t upset the apple-cart

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