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What does "Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Throwing the baby out with the bath water" is an expression that implies that an entire idea, concept, practice or project doesn't need to be rejected or discontinued if part of it is good. The baby, in this sense, represents the good part that can be preserved. The bath water, on the other hand, usually is dirty after the baby is washed and needs to be discarded, just like the parts of the concept that are bad or useless.

Origins of the Phrase

There are many ideas on the possible origins of this expression. Many people incorrectly attribute the expression to English or Irish origin. The phrase was first recorded in 1512, and used by a German writer, Thomas Murner, in his verse book, Die Narrenbeschworung. From Germany, the expression became commonly used in the United Kingdom and then in France.

The idea of throwing the baby out with the bath water might be inspired by the relatively few baths taken by people in Europe before the 16th century. Baths were often thought to be unhealthy, and they were difficult to prepare, because the bath water had to be drawn and heated. The difficulty of preparing bath water often meant that the same water might be used for a whole family’s bath, and the baby was frequently bathed last. At this point, the bath water might be quite dirty and might obscure view of the baby. A mother wouldn’t want to mistakenly discard the baby with the dirty, murky water — not that this was likely to occur.

The Good and the Bad

Throwing the baby out with the bath water isn’t likely to occur, but the expression of it has been a metaphor for the dichotomy existing in an idea or practice that is both good and bad. In such cases, the good can be kept while still getting rid of the bad. Some people might be inclined to get rid of everything and start over, and this expression is often used by people to encourage the preservation of the good parts.

Expresses an Opinion

The expression can be highly subjective, because individuals might define what constitutes good and bad in very different ways. Someone who disapproves of human cloning, for instance, might feel that other types of cloning also are bad and that all attempts at cloning should be rejected. Another person who disagrees with human cloning but supports research into other types of cloning might say that rejecting all types of cloning is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This phrase points out a logical fallacy. The assumption is that if something is bad and it belongs to a group, then everything in that group must be bad. A related expression might be that “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” When applied to this example, the phrase would express the idea that discarding all of the apples would waste any good apples that were in the bunch.

Legal Applications

In some cases, it is necessary for a system to practice throwing the baby out with the bath water. In some criminal justice systems, for example, an illegally obtained confession or an illegal search can mean that any evidence resulting from these is not admissible. This is often referred to as “fruit of the poisoned tree.” Under certain laws, any evidence arising from a violation of the justice system is considered tainted and cannot be used.

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.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon990879 — On May 13, 2015

Planned Parenthood would throw out both, or even keep the bathwater.

By anon229322 — On Nov 13, 2011

I love all of the different analogies/sayings from each poster on this great article about how it can be the same as to the bathwater/baby analogy.

Have you heard of "Law of Attraction"? It states how like attracts like? The different ways the posters said it can be seen along with the bathwater/baby thing is yet another example of bathwater/bath. Different ways of saying to explain the same idea, so to speak. --Silvia

By anon124509 — On Nov 06, 2010

The example of the Catholic Church doesn't really work. That would be more like throwing the baby out with the baptismal water.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 23, 2010

Sunshine31- Throwing the baby out with the bath water is really like adopting an “All or nothing” attitude. This type of thinking really limits someone’s potential.

By sunshine31 — On Jul 23, 2010

Waterhopper- I agree with that. This expression can also be applied to a weight loss regimen. Many people get frustrated with a few setbacks that they have had but instead of learning from those things and adopting the parts of their weight loss routine that did work, they often give up the weight loss goal altogether.

Sometimes it could be something as simple as eating the wrong foods at lunch that may cause a person to disregard their diet plan and eat whatever they want.

Their rationale is that they already made a mistake so why bother. They throw out their successes because of this one setback, which is essentially the same as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

By WaterHopper — On Jul 13, 2010

In a nutshell, if you get rid of useful things when discarding inessential things, you are throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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