Bustle, an online newspaper ‘for and by women’, has published ‘six common phrases you didn’t know were sexist (that you’ll now want to ban from your vocabulary)’.
One of them is ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. By chance this phrase was used by Sir Ernest Gowers, the enemy of officialese and cliché, in his book H.W. Fowler: The Man and his Teaching. ‘We can,’ Sir Ernest wrote, ‘rid ourselves of those grammarians’ fetishes which make it more difficult to be intelligible without throwing the baby away with the bath-water’.
That would annoy someone called Julie Sprankles, a writer for Bustle. ‘The most popular theory is that in medieval times, an entire family would take a bath using the same tub water. The man of the house was always at the top of this heirarchy [sic], followed by any sons. By the time the woman of the house and any small children made it to bathing time, the bath water was so dirty you could potentially lose a baby in it. Both misogynistic and gross.’
This tale is simply invented. There is no evidence the practice was in force in the Middle Ages more than in living memory. In any case the phrase is unknown in English before the middle of the 19th century. As that cranky old stylist Thomas Carlyle explained in 1853: ‘The Germans say, “You must empty out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it”.’ (It so happens that he made this observation in his pamphlet called The Nigger Question. Are we allowed to refer to it? Not in Bustle, I’d guess.)
The phrase had been cited in the 1840s in German: ‘Schüttet das Kind mit dem Bade aus.’ Whatever the bathing habits of Germans, there was nothing at all sexist about the phrase. The accusation belongs to a technique of campaigners who wallow in supposed iniquities fossilised in phrases for which they contrive false origins. Nitty-gritty is another, supposed to be racist; rule of thumb is equally fancifully thought sexist; hip, hip hooray is wrongly said to be anti-Semitic.
If any word symbolised oppression of women it’s Bustle, an uncomfortable steatopygous prosthesis.