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I recently read that the phrase "Blood is thicker than water" originally derived from the phrase "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb", implying that the ordinary meaning is the opposite of the original intention.

However my problem with this is that I can't find any references to this supposed original proverb (while it's possible to find references for the modern meaning from the 12th Century in German, and at least the 17th Century in English). There are plenty of places on the internet where people reference the supposedly original meaning, but I haven't been able to find anywhere they actually point to specific examples.

Does anyone know of any examples for this? Is there a reason not to consider this a mistaken etymology?

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where did you find the quote? It's hard to investigate a claim if we don't know who made it. –  DougM Jan 25 at 1:08
    
I wonder if this article on "5 frequently misused proverbs" is your source? If so, it refers to this more detailed explanation which also seems to fail to cite sources. Intriguing lack of textual references in those two articles. –  jbeldock Jan 25 at 1:12
    
Correction, the second article does make a reference, to John Lygate's Troy Book, c. 1492 and Middle English. Will have to dig that one up and look to see. –  jbeldock Jan 25 at 1:14
    
I think this Wikipedia article, for example, makes the question General Reference. One unsubstantiated dissenting example isn't worth bothering with. –  FumbleFingers Jan 25 at 5:06

4 Answers 4

I find it incomprehensible that someone would assume 'water' referred to a kinship tie, what with the millions of references to kinship ties as blood.

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I find it incomprehensible that someone downvoted your answer. The question is daft, but that's no reason to take it out on you. –  FumbleFingers Jan 25 at 5:07

I'd heard it was coined by an American Flag Officer, who despite being technically neutral went to the aid of some injured British sailors during an engagement off the coast of China in 1859. He is quoted to this effect in The Times' account of the incident:

'As we passed in to the assault...Tutnell was heard to say, "Blood is thicker than water", and in 100 ways he and all his people...acted up to this homely proverb.' ('The Disaster In China.' The Times (London, England), Friday, Sep 16, 1859; pg. 10)

But I heard wrong though, because the phrase is used shortly before this in 'The Times' itself:

'The structure of the Government rests mainly on the principle embodied in the homely adage, that blood is thicker than water, and one's own barn nearer than one's neighbour's house;...' ('London, Wednesday, April 11, 1855.' The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Apr 11, 1855; pg. 6)

So, it's a 'homely adage', a country saying, which emerged into educated parlance c. 1850s? No doubt the Tutnell incident would speed it on its way.

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It's found earlier still in Allan Ramsay, A Collection of Scots Proverbs, more complete and correct than any heretofore published from 1737. King George's loyal subjects in the American colonies would have been shocked if you told them there could ever come a time when their not aiding the British over the Chinese could ever be considered. –  Jon Hanna Jun 27 at 14:28

"Blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb." basically it is stating that an action, decision or promise made by choice is thicker than that of one forced by biology.

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"Blood is thicker than water" and its ilk can be traced back to twelfth-century writings, whereas the "blood of the covenant" interpretation is not more than twenty or thirty years old, as far as I can tell (and granted, Wikipedia has helped me greatly in this area).

I think that's rather a shame, actually, as I personally prefer the "blood of the covenant" interpretation over the more traditional one.

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