To throw the baby out with the bathwater
What does it mean?
In short, to throw the baby out with the bathwater means to get rid of something good while trying to get rid of something bad. The dirty bathwater is what you would like to get rid of, while the baby is what you would like to keep.
In the past, families had a certain order in which they would take a bath. This typically went father, mother and then the children from oldest to youngest. The poorer families would certainly have tried to use the same bathwater. You can easily imagine therefore that by the time it came to the baby to be washed, the bathwater was very dirty. It would have therefore been very easy to throw the baby out by mistake!
Where does it come from?
This phrase comes from a German proverb, das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. It’s earliest known use is in 1512, in Narrenbeschwörung by Thomas Murner. It is a common phrase in German and can be found in works by the likes of Martin Luther, Johannes Kepler, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe and Otto von Bismarck. It seems to have found its way into English at some point in the 19th Century.
How can I use it?
Often we use this phrase in a negative statement as a kind of warning not to do this. For example, if my boss wanted to change something at work, I might want to warn her that the changes could damage something that works well. We would say for example:
- Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We might also use it to offer an alternative suggestion:
- Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, have you thought about…
We might also use it to comment on somebody’s actions when we think they have done this:
- John threw the baby out with the bathwater by breaking up with Sarah.
- United have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by selling Smith.
What are some examples?
- Don’t be hasty. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- If you think it’s best, break up with her. But, I think you’d be throwing the baby out with the bathwater there. You could try talking through your problems together instead.
- United have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by selling Smith. They have got rid of their most expensive player, but he was also their top scorer.
What are some similar or related expressions?
Throw out the champagne with the cork.
Empty the baby out with the bath.