throw the baby out with the bathwater

To throw the baby out with the bathwater is a German proverb that dates to at least 1512. It was first recorded by Thomas Murner’s in his satire Narrenbeschw√∂rung (Appeal to Fools). Despite its fame in German (used by such notables as Luther, Kepler, Goethe, Bismarck, Mann, and Grass), it doesn’t appear in English for several more centuries, until Thomas Carlyle translated it and used it in an 1849 essay on 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 careering down the kennels; but try if you can to keep the little child!

There is no evidence that anyone ever actually tossed out a baby with the bathwater; it is simply evocative and alliterative imagery.

There is a bit of false internet lore circling the globe about life in England in the 1500s. One of the claims this gem of wisdom makes is that the phrase throw the baby out with the bathwater comes from the practice of taking annual baths using the same bathwater as the other family members. By the time the children got a chance to bathe, the water would be so dirty that infants could be lost in it. Hence the phrase. Of course, this is utterly false.

(Source: Yale Book of Quotations)

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