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"(DON'T) THROW THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER": The Americanization of a German Proverb and Proverbial Expression


The Americanization of a German Proverb and Proverbial Expression*

In memoriam Wayland D. Hand

When the proverb "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water" or its parallel proverbial expression "To throw the baby out with the bath water" appear today in Anglo-American oral communication or in books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements or cartoons, hardly anybody would surmise that this common metaphorical phrase is actually of German origin and of relatively recent use in the English language. It had its first written occurrence in Thomas Murner's (1475-1537) versified satirical book Narrenbeschwörung (1512) which contains as its eighty-first short chapter entitled "Das kindt mit dem bad vß schitten" (To throw the baby out with the bath water) a treatise on fools who by trying to rid themselves of a bad thing succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well. In seventy-six rhymed lines the proverbial phrase is repeated three times as a folkloric leitmotif, and there is also the first illustration of the expression as a woodcut depicting quite literally a woman who is pouring her baby out with the bath water.1 Murner also cites the phrase repeatedly in later works and this rather frequent use might be an indication that the proverbial expression was already in oral currency towards the end of the fifteenth century in Germany.

There is no doubt that the proverbial text gained rapid and universal acceptance in the satirical and polemic literature of the Age of the Reformation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) for example changed the proverbial expression in his scholarly lecture about Salomo from 1526 to a proverb by adding the formula "Man soll ..." (One should, One must, or Don't) to it: "Man sol [sic] das kind nicht mit dem bad ausgiessen" (Don't throw the baby out with the bath water).2 It is of interest to note here that Archer Taylor in an article on "The Proverbial Formula 'Man soll' ..." (1930) takes this particular expression to point out that "the formula was used to make nonce-proverbs out of proverbial phrases. In 'Man soll das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten', the starting point is the phrase 'das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten' and not the proverb. It may be possible to dispute whether the phrase or the proverb was first in any particular instance, but the general method of forming nonce-proverbs from phrases remains."3 While Taylor does not explicitly refer to Luther, he certainly is correct about his statement that the formula "Man soll ..." in general makes proverbs out of proverbial expressions. But even Luther preferred to use it on several occasions in its phraseological form, enabling him to employ the metaphor for polemic purposes rather than as didactic wisdom which the proverb would express.

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Already in 1541 the proverbial expression appears in Sebastian Franck's (1499-1542) early major proverb collection Sprichwörter / Schöne / Weise / Herrliche Clugreden / und Hoffsprüch as "Das kindt mit dem bad außschütten,"4 and from there it has found its way into all German paremiographical dictionaries. It has also been documented numerous times in the literary works of such well-known authors as Jörg Wickram (1505-1562), Johannes Nas (1534-1590), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792), Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854), Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander (1803-1879), Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), Günter Grass (born 1927), and many others. This is not the place to comment on these interesting references, save to point out that they, as well as the appearance of the proverb and the proverbial phrase in proverb collections, clearly attest to their common currency among the German speaking and writing population. In fact, judging by their frequent occurrence in modern German aphorisms, anti-proverbs, headlines, slogans, etc., it can be stated that the two forms of this proverbial metaphor belong to the most popular examples of German folk speech.5

But when, how and why did this proverbial expression and proverb find their way into the English language where they are today also quite well known and often cited? Why should English speakers even consider using this somewhat grotesque image of washing a baby in a small movable tub and then throwing this human treasure out with the dirty bath water, when their language has such well established equivalent proverbial expressions as "To throw the helve after the hatchet", "To throw away the wheat with the chaff" and the bland "To throw away the good with the bad"? The major reasons surely must have been that people came in contact with the expression through a German speaker or through the written German word. The latter seems to have been the case regarding the first somewhat awkward loan translation of the proverbial phrase in English by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). The famous British social critic and historian was also an extreme Germanophile, who studied German literature and who published widely on such literary giants as Schiller and Goethe. It might well be that he found the expression in Goethe's autobiographical account Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811/22; Poetry and Truth) which he quite assuredly read in its German original and which does in fact contain the phrase as will be shown later. In any case, Carlyle used the phrase in an essay with the disturbing title "The Nigger Question" that appeared in December 1849 in Frazer's Magazine and as a separate pamphlet in 1853 in London. In it he argues that white people who hold black servants should make a commitment to them for life since any shorter arrangement would appear to be abuse, i.e. treat the slaves kindly but don't give them their freedom:

Servants hired for life, or by a contract for a long period, and not easily dissoluble; so and not otherwise would all reasonable mortals, Black and White, wish to hire and to be hired! I invite you to reflect on that; for you will find it true. 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 keep the little child!
How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it alas, I do not pretend that this is easy, that it can be done in a day, or a single generation, or a single century: but I do surmise or perceive that it will, by straight methods or by circuitous, need to be done. [...] And truly, my friends, with regard to this world-famous Nigger Question, - which perhaps is louder than it is big, after all, - I would advise you to attack it on that side. Try against the dirty water, with an eye to save the baby! That will be a quite new point of attack; where, it seems to me, some real benefit and victory for the poor Negro, might before long be accomplished; [...].6

This is not only a telling account about slavery by a leading British intellectual of the nineteenth century whose reputation decreased in this century due to his love for authority and strong leaders which appear to foreshadow German Fascism. But this early English reference of the proverb under discussion is also cited with the introductory formula "The Germans say", making it absolutely clear that Carlyle was well aware of its German origin. He translates the proverb "Man soll das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten" quite clumsily as "You must empty-out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it" and alludes to it a bit more cleverly later on with the grotesque statement "Try against the dirty water, with an eye to save the baby!" Translated into plain and non-metaphorical English this would mean improve and civilize the institution of slavery and the lot of the slaves themselves, but for heaven's sake don't lose the luxury of having slaves! While this is definitely a misguided argument, the fact remains that this passage is a fascinating indication linguistically of how an otherwise quite adept translator of German to English struggles to render a German proverb whose metaphor has struck his fancy into colloquial English, failing miserably as can be seen.

It is very doubtful that this early reference had any particular effect on spreading the expression in England. It appears to be nothing but an isolated first occurrence in awkward English which, however, does identify the phrase correctly as a translation of an originally German proverb. Lexicographers, whose business it is to find equivalents or word-for-word translations for foreign language dictionaries, continued to have the same problem with this German expression throughout the nineteenth century all the way to the mid 1950s. What follows is a short historical review of how German-English dictionaries have dealt with rendering the proverbial expression "das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten" into English:

1846: to reject the good with the bad.7
1849: to throw away the good together with the bad.8
1857: to reject the good with the bad.9
1896: to throw away (or to reject) the good and the bad together, to use no discrimination.10
1900: to throw away (or reject) the good with the bad, to act without discrimination.11
1936: throw the child out with the bath-water, hence, act without discretion, reject the good with the bad.12
1941: to throw the helve after the hatchet.13
1958: reject the good together with the bad.14
1965: to cast away the good with the bad, to throw out the child with the bath-water.15
1972: to throw out the child with the bath-water.16
1974: to throw out the baby with the bathwater.17
1978: throw out the baby with the bathwater.18
1981: to throw out the baby with the bathwater.19
1982: to throw out the baby with the bathwater.20

As can be seen, it took until 1936 before the English version "throw the child out with the bath-water" appears in a German-English dictionary, using the direct translation of "Kind" to "child". However, this text appears to be but a precise translation without any claim on currency in the English language, since the lexicographer Karl Breul goes on to say and explain "hence, act without discretion, reject the good with the bad." In fact, it was not until the year 1965 that "to throw out the child with the bath-water" is at least given equal footing with the much older but less figurative "to cast away the good with the bad." Starting with 1974 the variant "to throw out the baby with the bathwater" finally appears and with this replacement of the noun "child" with "baby" it has become the standard lexicographical form today.


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

In the last clause the acute manipulator of traditional language Günter Grass cleverly connects the shortened proverbial expression "Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten" with the phrase "Sie sitzen beide in einem Bade" (they are both sitting in one bath, i.e. they both have the same concerns or problems). It might even be that a third expression, namely "Wir sitzen alle in einem Boot" (we are all in the same boat), is being alluded to as well in this pun. In any case, the experienced translator of much modern German fiction, Ralph Manheim, quite successfully translated this passage in his English rendition of The Tin Drum (1961):

Mama could be very gay, she could also be very anxious. Mama could forget quickly, yet she had a good memory. Mama would throw me out with the bath water, and yet she would share my bath.140

While he does not do very well with the interconnection of the two if not three proverbial phrases which make up Grass's punning proverbial language, he certainly recognizes the first part to be the phrase under discussion here, rendering it very appropriately as "Mama would throw me out with the bath water." Predictably, the Swedish and Dutch translations also maintain the original German expression. The Swedish translator Nils Holmberg has for the final sentence of this passage "Mamma lät mig komma till sig i badkaret men kastade inte ut barnet med badvattnet,"141 while the Dutch translator Koos Schuur renders it as "Mijn moeder gooide mij soms met het badwater weg en kwam toch bij mij in het bad zitten."142 Yet the French translator Jean Amsler encountered obvious difficulty with this passage:

Maman savait être fort gaie. Maman savait être fort anxieuse. Maman savait oublier vite. Maman avait pourtant bonne mémoire. Maman me flanquait a la porte et pourtant m'admettait dans son bain.143

Amsler kept the fact that Oscar's mother let him take a bath with her (i.e. she admitted him into her bath), but he replaces the German proverbial expression with the inadequate phraseological unit "flanquer quelqu'un a la porte" (i.e. to boot, throw, chuck someone out), losing the proverbial pun altogether. He also decided quite correctly that the traditional French equivalent "jeter le manche après la cognée" (to throw the helve after the hatchet) was even less fitting to translate this complex sentence. But one thing is for certain, he did not have at his disposal the new French proverb "Il ne faut pas jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain" when he translated Grass's novel in 1961. The proverb and its proverbial form "jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain" must therefore be relatively new in the French language, and that being the case, it might in fact be that the phrase entered into the French language not from the German but the English only sometime during the past two decades.

It can be assumed that the German phrase, no matter how it got into the French language, will catch on among speakers of that language just as it has done in the English tongue earlier this century. Many of the proverbs and proverbial expressions that are shared in common by many European languages date back to classical antiquity, the Bible or the Middle Ages. They were usually translated word by word and gained general currency especially through widely disseminated Bible translations and also through the pioneering humanistic work of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) whose Latin Adagia (1500ff.) also were translated into the vulgate languages. It is, however, of interest to note that certain indigenous proverbs or proverbial expressions of a singular European national culture can still today undergo the fascinating steps to gain at least some international distribution and currency. For a long time the German proverbial expression "Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten" from the 15th century and its slightly later wording as the proverb "Man muß das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten" were pretty much restricted to the German speaking countries. By the 17th century they entered the closely related Dutch language and culture and eventually spread to other Germanic languages in the North. But the successful jump across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean does not appear to have happened until the nineteenth century. In fact, I hope to have proven that the German phrase did not really get onto solid footing in the Anglo-American world until the early twentieth century. By now its German origin is only seldom remembered and most users think of it as an English or American expression. But appearances are deceiving, and it would surely be better to classify this old German proverbial expression and proverb as belonging at least to an impressive degree to the international stock of proverbial metaphors and wisdom. This ever increasing internationalization is possible due to the fact that the proverb and proverbial expression "(Don't) throw the baby out with the bath water" express in an easily understandable metaphor the only too human inclination towards extreme reactions. All of us, whether we like it or not, are from time to time guilty of the universally practiced act of throwing the baby out with the bath water.



1 Thomas Murners Narrenbeschwörung, ed. by M. Spanier. Halle: VEB Max Niemeyer, 1967, pp. 243-246.

2 Quoted from D. Martin Luthers Werke, ed. by Paul Pietsch. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1898, vol. 20, p. 160. See also James Cornette, Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions in the German Works of Martin Luther. Diss. University of North Carolina, 1942, p. 157.

3 Archer Taylor, "The Proverbial Formula 'Man soll ...'," Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, New Series, 2 (1930), 152-156. Also in Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, ed. by Wolfgang Mieder. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1975, p. 104.

4 See Sebastian Franck, Sprichwörter / Schöne / Weise / Herrliche Clugreden / und Hoffsprüch. Frankfurt am Main: Christian Egenolff, 1541; rpt. ed. by Wolfgang Mieder. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1987, p. 16[b] and p. 17[a].

5 For a detailed historical study of occurrences in German written sources of this popular proverb and proverbial expression from Thomas Murner to the present day see Wolfgang Mieder, "'Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten': Ursprung, Überlieferung und Verwendung einer deutschen Redensart," Muttersprache (submitted).

6 Quoted from Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904, vol. 4, pp. 368-369. The entire essay on pp. 348-383.

7 Joseph Leonhard Hilpert, Englisch-Deutsches und Deutsch-Englisches Wörterbuch. Karlsruhe: Braun, 1846, vol. 2, p. 118.

8 G.J. Adler, Dictionary of the German and English Languages. New York: Appleton, 1849, part 1, p. 77.

9 Joseph Leonhard Hilpert, A Dictionary of the English and German, and the German and English Language. Carlsruhe: Braun, 1857, part 1, p. 118.

10 Felix Flügel, A Dictionary of the English and German Languages. New York: Lemcke & Buechner, 1896, part 2, p. 130.

11 Eduard Muret and Daniel Sanders, Encyklopädisches englisch-deutsches und deutsch-englisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1900, part 2, p. 1197.

12 Karl Breul, Cassell's German and English Dictionary. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1936, p. 68.

13 J.E. Wessely, Deutsch-Englisches und Englisch-Deutsches Taschenwörterbuch. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1941, p. 125.

14 Harold T. Betteridge, The New Cassell's German Dictionary. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1958, p. 261.

15 Karl Wildhagen, The New Wildhagen German Dictionary. Chicago: Follett, 1965, p. 670.

16 Karl Wildhagen, English-German / German-English Dictionary. London: George Allen, 1972, vol. 2, p. 750.

17 Otto Springer, Langenscheidts Enzyklopädisches Wörterbuch der englischen und deutschen Sprache. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 1974, part 2, vol. 1, p. 890.

18 Harold Betteridge, Cassell's German-English / English-German Dictionary. New York: Macmillan, 1978, p. 346.

19 Peter Terrell et al., Collins German-English / English-German Dictionary. London: Collins, 1981, p. 389.

20 Robin Sawers, Harrap's Concise German and English Dictionary. London: Harrap, 1982, p. 290.



140 Günter Grass, The Tin Drum, translated by Ralph Manheim. London: Secker and Warburg, 1961, p. 163.

141 Günter Grass, Blecktrumman, translated by Nils Holmberg. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1961, p. 124.

142 Günter Grass, De blikken trommel, translated by Koos Schuur. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1964, p. 173.

143 Günter Grass, Le Tambour, translated by Jean Amsler. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1961, p. 171.

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405

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