The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

August 19, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: Watching the bath water

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.

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