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What does "Blood is Thicker Than Water" Mean?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Blood is thicker than water" is a recognizable proverb that has surpassed the test of time. The generally accepted interpretation of the saying is that the bond of those related by blood is stronger than the bond of marriage or friendship. The origin of the saying is most often attributed to Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott in his novel “Guy Mannering” in 1815. Other, earlier sources include references as early as the twelfth century.

Some sources state that the expression was first mentioned in a medieval German beast epic by Heinrich der Glichezaere, which translated into English read “kinblood is not spoiled by water.” Other references mention a similar mention in 1412 by an English priest, John Lydgate, in Troy Book. More modern versions include Sir Walter Scott’s mention as well as those by authors Thomas Hughes, U.S. Navy Commodore Josiah Tattnall, and Aldous Huxley.

Various interpretations include Lydgate’s: “Relationships within the family are stronger than any other kind.” Huxley added a different twist with his interpretation in Ninth Philosopher’s Song in 1920 that “Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker. But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood.” Tattnall is credited by some as the one who brought the proverb into common use when he used the expression in 1859 to defend the aid of his American ship to a British ship during an attack on the Chinese.

Other sayings are often related to "blood is thicker than water." These include bloodlines, bad blood and blood brother. "Blood brother" often refers to either two males related by birth, or two or more men not related by birth, but who swear loyalty to one another.

The phrase has obviously been in use for hundreds of years, with most modern interpretations in agreement that family bonds are closer than those of outsiders. In other words, those who are related by blood (relatives) are connected more intimately than those who are connected by water (non-relatives).

Whether Sir Walter Scott is to be considered the father of the phrase, he certainly has ties to many other colorful proverbs. He is recognized as coining other phrases in his writing to include cold shoulder, go berserk, lock stock and barrel, savoir faire, the apple of my eye, tongue in check and wide berth, among others.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon347061 — On Sep 03, 2013

Blood relatives are those who have "bled" or gone the extra mile for you, who has been there when you were "bleeding"/hurt. It does not necessarily mean you share come ancestry. Those with a common ancestor share the waters of birth. It calls to mind kids / men would cut themselves and mix their blood to become blood brothers -- in a time when your word meant more than it does today. The roots of the phrase are older than presented in this blog.

By anon258876 — On Apr 03, 2012

After attending a church with teachings which separated me from family and which separated family from me, I came to my understanding that this phrase argues for an individual to stick with family rather than being parted from them by water baptism into a differing faith.

By Moldova — On Dec 22, 2010

Sunshine31-I agree it is sad. Sometimes family members are consumed with their own needs or vices that they can not defend or rescue a struggling family member.

For example, if you have a parent that is an alcoholic or emotional unavailable, it would be better to seek help from a friend instead of trying to get help from a family member that is helpless.

In this case, the family member will choose the alcohol over the son or daughter even though blood should be thicker than water.

However, the son or daughter might feel a sense of obligation to the impaired parent because of the notion that blood is thicker than water and may seek to help the parent instead of allowing outsiders to intervene.

Often children of alcoholic parents grow up fast because they have no choice. They often assume the responsibility of the parental role and in a sense switch places with the parent.

They take care of siblings because of their sense of obligations and turn out to be great leaders in the workplace.

Sometimes however, they may resent the sense of responsibility brought on them prematurely, but most see the sense of obligation as too great to let go of so they continue to care for everyone because they feel that blood is thicker than water.

By sunshine31 — On Dec 21, 2010

Mutsy-I agree that your family will usually be loyal to you more so than a friend will, but what about if your family is dysfunctional.

In that case a friend might be more helpful to you than your family. These people often run away from their families because they are not typical.

Here their friends become a surrogate family and take the place of the actual family. In these cases blood is not thicker than water because the blood relationships, or the family relationships are not normal and the family members are dysfunctional.

I think that it is sad when that happens because it becomes harder to trust people. If you can not trust your own family, then who can you trust?

People in situations like this often live life with long traumas that they are never able to totally overcome because their families made choices that were not traditional and did not reflect a sense of loyalty expected in these types of relationships.

By mutsy — On Dec 21, 2010

The blood is thicker than water idiom really refers to the fact that family relationships are superior to regular friendships and acquaintances especially in regards to disputes.

It refers to the fact that familial relationships are the most trustworthy and should be regarded the highest when there is a problem.

It also establishes that your family should always have your best interest at heart and would be more motivated in helping you.

A friend who is not blood related may have good intentions, but the bond that you share with your family usually outweighs the benefits that a friend will provide. This is where the whole notion of is blood thicker than water comes from.

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