This is an old expression with a somewhat wicked sense of humor which means not to commit the mistake of discarding or sacrificing the essential, while trying to get rid of something undesirable or bad. Of course this is a figurative way of saying something other than it does literally. Like many old maxims it is difficult to trace down its precise origin, though an almost verbatim German phrase has been known since the Middle Ages.
While not claiming to be an expert on etymology, I thought the seemingly anachronistic aphorism could use some historical context for relevancy’s sake. I remembered some fascinating writings I read in college by Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a 10th Century scholar and a traveler during Abbasid Caliphate. In his detailed accounts to his encounters with people known as the Rus in the Volgar region, Fadlan describes a morning washing routine for these folks that goes something like this: The male head of the clan is the first one to receive a basin of water from a servant. He washes his face and hair, spits the water back in the basin after gargling. He also blows his nose in there. The basin is then taken to the person of the next rank, who repeats the routine. Finally the basin makes the round all the way to the last person, who ends up with a basin full of dirty water for yet another cleaning ceremony. Fadlan, coming from the glamorous city of Baghdad, calls the folks as “the filthiest of God’s creatures”, expressing his disapproval of the ritual of questionable hygiene.
The discussion of the political correctness asides, Fadlan’s account nevertheless gives a rare glimpse to how things were in some part of the Europe some 1100 years ago. Sparing you the details, we can now adequately imagine how it might not have been as clear(!) a process to fish out a baby from basin as you initially thought, given the state of water quality baby’s low social rank warrants, which was customarily determined by one’s gender, age and status.
Churning through the murky origin of the idiom, I still find a universal wisdom that can resonate through all cultures today, other than how glorious a thing the modern plumbing is. A highly hierarchical society and its customs often create unpleasant consequences or lead to unfair treatment, especially for those at the bottom of the basin. Yet we as a society still struggle today with archaic issues that one might think should have had been dealt with a long time before equipping our abode with the state of the art plumbing: sexism, ageism and inequality. In what looks like a fresh sludge of turbulences gurgling around the age-old agenda lately, I can’t help but notice some folks keep throwing out the baby with the bathwater.