The Baby was Thrown out with the Bath Water

Source: Annalise Deal

Samantha Henze

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Modern language is teeming with idiomatic expressions, many of which are seemingly unrelated to their meaning when analyzed from a literal perspective. Every idiom, however, has an origin, and often discovering the origin can add value to the given expression, or at the least, make it more interesting.


So with that, scroll down and explore ten idiomatic origins.


1.    Break a leg

This is a phrase people say to actors before they go on stage to perform, and generally means “good luck.” At face value, this idiom seems entirely nonsensical, however it comes from a theatrical superstition that by wishing someone bad luck, the opposite would happen to him or her, and by wishing some good luck, he or she will in turn receive bad luck. Thus, actors would wish each other bad luck by saying: “break a leg,” hoping this would then bring good luck.


2.    Beat around the bush

In earlier times, participants in bird hunts would have to beat the bushes in order to rouse the birds, so that eventually, someone could actually catch the quarry in nets. The modern connotation of “to beat around the bush,” means almost literally this, which is to avoid coming to the point.


3.    I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

When the Roman Catholic Church would decide whether or not to make people saints, they would appoint an advocate for God to speak in favor of the person, and an advocate for the Devil to speak skeptically of the candidate in order to generate a well-rounded perspective. Thus, the Devil’s advocate’s job was literally to point out the evil and flaws in a human.

Today we use the idiom, “playing the devil’s advocate” to describe any person who takes an opposing argument, even if he or she don’t necessarily agree with it, just for the sake of debate, which was the job the Roman Catholic Church’s Devil’s advocate.


4.    Curiosity killed the cat.

The original form of this metaphor was “care killed the cat” when “care” was defined as “worry” or “sorrow.” The metaphor was first printed in Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humour, written:  “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.”

Today, we use the word “curiosity,” as the word “care” has taken on a new meaning. The idiom suggests that unnecessary investigation or excessive inquisitiveness can lead one into dangerous situations.


5.    I’m feeling under the weather.

This idiom has a seafaring origin: in the old days, when a sailor was feeling seasick, he was sent down below the deck to get away from the weather in order to aid his recovery.

In modern times, we have adopted this literal expression a created a metaphor implying you are feeling sick or even just less than ideal.


6.    Sub par

Sub par is a common way of saying below average. However, the statement can seem contradictory when looked at in a golfing perspective, which is where most people assume its origin lies. To golf below par actually means above average, the opposite of the idiom’s connotation. The saying rather comes from finance, where a stock or bond has a par, or face value, and if it is below par, it is worth less than the face value.


7.    Take it with a grain of salt.

This phrase, in modern terms, means to accept a given statement, but still maintain a certain degree of skepticism regarding its validity. The idiom originated from an ancient antidote for poison, which suggested that its damaging effects could be moderated by the taking of a grain of salt. The cure says, “Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue…with the addition of a grain of salt.” Thus, if one takes a potentially false statement “with a grain of salt,” they will be able to mitigate the possible damage that could’ve come from fully accepting an invalid assertion.


8.     I heard it through the grapevine.

This phrase originated with the invention of the telegraph, which was soon referred to as the ‘grapevine telegraph’, as its appearance was likened to a rugged vine. This distinguished the old telegraph, the ‘grapevine telegraph’ from the new, more direct ‘down-the-wire’ telegraph.

We now use the expression “I heard it through the grapevine” to mean you obtained a piece of information through informal communication, such as gossip, rumor, or simply any word of mouth.


9.     I’m back to square one.

This idiom means to go back to the beginning, usually after a dead-end or failure of some sort. There is no definite origin of the phrase, but the most plausible, in my opinion, is that of the game hopscotch. After mis-stepping or finishing the course, the ‘Scotch-hoppers’ are sent back to the first square, square one, which is the beginning of the course.


10.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

The expression originated in the middle ages. This was a time when people took very few baths, so by the time the baby bathed (which would usually be last because children were of lowest priority) the water would be so dirty, that when discarding the bath water, people couldn’t necessarily see the baby and thus they would accidentally throw the babies out with the bathwater.

Today this idiom is used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good (the baby) is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad (the dirty bathwater).


Print Friendly

Facebook Comments


3 Responses to “The Baby was Thrown out with the Bath Water”

  1. jweiner on April 28th, 2014 8:54 pm

    Really interesting article, Sammy, although it doesn’t answer all my questions, mainly: Who is Betty Meltzer?

  2. dbalestra on April 28th, 2014 11:37 pm

    Just was wondering about a few of these the other day. Crazy.

  3. josephrabinovitsj on April 29th, 2014 7:11 pm

    But I’m still all sixes and sevens about the origin of the idiom “the bee’s knees”, which bums me out because that expression is really the cat’s pajamas. Do you think you would be able to throw me a bone?

The Baby was Thrown out with the Bath Water