The Herald Bulletin

August 19, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: Watching the bath water


The Herald Bulletin

---- — There is an old saying that you should not “throw the baby out with the bath water.” In today’s age, that seems like one of the most ridiculous phrases that anyone could come up with as no one would ever do something so absurd. When you put it in the context of its origin, however, the idiom becomes more logical.

Centuries ago, there wasn’t a bathtub or running water in every home and taking a bath was much more uncommon than it is today. When it came time to go to where the bath was, it was often a family affair with hierarchy playing an important component. Filling the vessel to be used for a bath was a chore and required a bit of labor.

The father, who was revered as the head of the house, would take his first in freshly poured water and when he finished other members of the family would follow in their perceived order of importance. The baby of the family, being the lowest on the scale, would be given a bath last. By the time the infant got their turn in the tub, the water could be so dark and filthy from having not been changed since it was first poured for the father that it may by that time look more like mud than water they were being submerged in. After the last member of the family – the baby – was done, the water would be tossed out so the next family could pour fresh water in and begin the process anew.

Placed in this context, the saying suddenly makes a lot more sense. From this aphorism, we can learn a number of things. The first is that each action builds upon the actions that came before: each person who stepped into the bath muddied the water more and more until it no longer represented what it once was. Second, in this state, it is now possible to mistakenly confuse one thing for another, or simply not see it: the baby in the water. Lastly, the error being made is one that is not only unintentional but avoidable under most circumstance.

In today’s business environment — and particularly within the local community — there are a number of mistakes being made where this saying is quite fitting. When you first look at these mistakes, one of the easiest things to do is scratch your head and wonder how in the world they could possibly be made. When you dissect them, however, it becomes apparent that even though they may all have started as unintentional and avoidable, they were invariably the result of one bad action building upon another until the water became murky enough that it is possible to now throw the one good thing out without even realizing that it is being done.

If only it were so easy to figure out what it also means that you can’t shovel smoke…

Emmett Dulaney is the author of several books on technology and an Anderson resident. His column appears Tuesdays.