Throw out the baby with the bath water

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Throw out the baby with the bath water is an idiomatic expression and a concept[1] used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad,[2] or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.[3]

A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal.[4] In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.[5]


Earliest record of the phrase from Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512

This idiom derives from a German proverb, das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. The earliest record of this phrase is in 1512, in Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner; and this book includes a woodcut illustration showing a woman tossing a baby out with waste water. It is a common catchphrase in German, with examples of its use in work by Martin Luther, Johannes Kepler, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Otto von Bismarck, Thomas Mann, and Günter Grass.[6][7]

Thomas Carlyle adapted the concept in an 1849 essay on slavery:[7]

"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!"[8]

Carlyle is urging his readers to join in the struggle to end slavery, but he also encourages them to be mindful of the need to try to avoid harming the slaves themselves in the process.[8]

As an aphorism or proverb, it is well known as one of many prophylactic guides to conduct.[9]

Some claim the phrase originates from a time when the whole household shared the same bath water.[10] The head of household (Lord) would bathe first, followed by the men, then the Lady and the women, then the children, followed lastly by the baby. The water would be so black from dirt that a baby could be accidentally 'tossed out with the bathwater'.[10] Others state there is no historic evidence that there is any connection with the practice of several family members using the same bath water, the baby being bathed last.[citation needed]

Alternate expressions[edit]

The meaning and intent of the English idiomatic expression is sometimes presented in different terms.

  • Throw out the champagne with the cork[11]
  • Empty the baby out with the bath.[12]



External links[edit]