Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
This is a curious expression and when used, it is intended to convey an admonition – in your haste in getting rid of something unpleasant and undesirable, don’t mistakenly eject something that is of value. Harassed parents of infants may demur, but, of course, the baby is what is valuable. The development of internal plumbing and fixed bathroom fittings make this warning somewhat otiose these days but it makes for an entertaining figure of speech.
The phrase appears to be German in origin and first made its printed appearance in 1512 in Thomas Murner’s Narenbeschworung which translates as Advice to Fools. Whether this was a hazard facing Teutonic tots or not is not clear but the title of Murner’s meisterwerk and the fact that it is a satire suggests that he was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Whatever the rationale behind using the phrase, it became popular, its most usual formulation being das Kind mit dem Bade ausschutten.
A variant appeared in Sebastian Franck’s book of proverbs, Spruchvorter, published in 1541. He illustrated the proverb by citing someone sending an old nag to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take the saddle and bridle off first – an unexpected bonus for the knacker. The astronomer, Johannes Kepler, wrote in his Tertius Interveniens, published in 1610, “this is a caution, lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.”
The phrase didn’t appear in Blighty until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Carlyle used a rather clumsy rendition of the proverb in his article in the Fraser magazine in December 1849 which then became a pamphlet four years later. “The Germans say you must empty out the bathing-tub”, he wrote, “but not the baby along with it….How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy”. The precious thing in this instance is the slave – hardly a statement which would resonate with our sentiments today.
In the English speaking world the phrase didn’t reach a degree of popularity until the early 20th century and this may well be down to George Bernard Shaw’s usage in the preface to Getting Married, published in 1911. There he wrote, “we shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath”. And there we have it.
I may be accused of casting aspersions about Carlyle’s attitude to slaves and slavery. When we cast aspersions we criticise someone or something, their ability and there is a sense that the allegations may not be entirely fair and are certainly made by innuendo rather than directly. What is interesting about this phrase is the word aspersions whose root comes from the Latin verb aspergere, meaning to sprinkle. An aspersion was the ritual sprinkling of water and in the Roman Catholic Church was a form of baptism.
By 1749, however, there had been a complete volte-face in its meaning. Instead of sprinkling something beneficial, the sense is that we are showering someone with damaging statements or, possibly, false accusations. It appears in this sense Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; “I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character; nay, the most scandalous tongues have never dared censure my reputation”.
Is it too fanciful to think this change in meaning is a consequence of the Reformation and the consequent fall from grace of all things Catholic? I wonder.