I found the following definition of shed (the verb):

  1. chiefly dialect : to set apart : segregate

  2. to cause to be dispersed without penetrating

  3. a. to cause (blood) to flow by cutting or wounding

    b. to pour forth in drops shed tears

    c. to give off or out sheds some light on the subject

  4. to give off, discharge, or expel from the body of a plant or animal: as

    a. to eject, slough off, or lose as part of the normal processes of life a caterpillar shedding its skin, a cat shedding hair, a deciduous tree sheds its leaves in the fall

    b. to discharge usually gradually especially as part of a pathological process shed a virus in the feces

  5. to rid oneself of temporarily or permanently as superfluous or unwanted shed her inhibitions, the company shed 100 jobs

Here, I am primarily interested in the third usage. We can shed blood, sweat and tears but not much else. Obviously, we can also shed our clothes or shed light upon but these are different meanings.

The etymology of the word is:

shed (v.) "cast off," Old English sceadan, scadan "to divide, separate, part company; discriminate, decide; scatter abroad, cast about," strong verb (past tense scead, past participle sceadan), from Proto-Germanic *skaithan (cf. Old Saxon skethan, Old Frisian sketha, Middle Dutch sceiden, Dutch scheiden, Old High German sceidan, German scheiden "part, separate, distinguish," Gothic skaidan "separate"), from *skaith "divide, split."

According to Klein's sources, this probably is related to PIE root *skei- "to cut, separate, divide, part, split" (cf. Sanskrit chid-, Greek skhizein, Latin scindere "to split;" Lithuanian skedzu "I make thin, separate, divide;" Old Irish scian "knife;" Welsh chwydu "to break open"). Related: Shedding. A shedding-tooth (1799) was a milk-tooth or baby-tooth.

In reference to animals, "to lose hair, feathers, etc." recorded from c.1500; of trees losing leaves from 1590s; of clothes, 1858. This verb was used in Old English to gloss Late Latin words in the sense "to discriminate, to decide" that literally mean "to divide, separate" (cf. discern). Hence also scead (n.) "separation, distinction; discretion, understanding, reason;" sceadwisnes "discrimination, discretion."

As far as I can tell, the third meaning of shed (in the quoted definition) is restricted to blood, sweat and tears. Why is that? What is the origin of the idiom to shed blood? I would guess that shed blood comes from the meaning to scatter abroad of the Old English word sceadan, if so, why is it so restricted today? Was it once a more common term? Could we once say that I shed water on my garden or I shed the seeds in my field?

  • 5
    But if we can shed skin and also hair, that invalidates your claim. I understand shed to mean that you lose (forever) those skin cells, those blood cells, those drops of tears and those hair strands. The very parts of our bodies which, funnily enough, continually renew themselves and get replaced. We don't shed teeth or bones.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 20:13
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    @Mari-LouA shedding of that sort comes under the fourth meaning while shedding blood and tears is the third. Not sure I can put my finger on why exactly but that is basically my question. Also, we shed other people's blood usually, not our own.
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 20:17
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    If you are saying that shedding clothes is part of a different meaning, what else apart from blood, sweat and tears, would ypou expect to be able to shed? Waste products? I have never heard, incidentally of anyone shedding sweat!
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 20:24
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    Anything liquid or granulated can be shed. As can many things metaphorically, like one's clothes or some light on the subject. It's from a common Teutonic root, with no other I-E cognates. It simply means to divide, with a subsidiary sense that one part (which may be fluid or plural) is to be discarded. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 20:51
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    I don't agree that there's a neat distinction between “getting rid of” and “dispersing” when it comes to skin and tears. I suspect that the organization of that dictionary is encouraging you to make distinctions that aren't really that clear cut. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:57

2 Answers 2


Because these usages of shed are assuming a few things about the objects being shed:

a. to cause (blood) to flow by cutting or wounding

b. to pour forth in drops shed tears

Both (a) and (b) require a liquid state in order to flow or drop and (c) is some form of luminance which you noted you don't actually care about. So you could say:

(a) The cyborg shed oil from its veins.

(b) The sky shed rain upon the fields.

These are non-standard in the sense that their usage is extremely uncommon but the meaning still fits.

To directly answer your question: You can shed blood, sweat and tears because they are liquids dispersed from cutting or wounding (blood) or things that pour forth in drops (sweat; tears). If anything else in the human body could do either of those things you could also shed them.

To prove the point:

A urinary tract infection has been plaguing me for days. Yesterday I shed a mere three drops.

By the way, I have no idea where you copied your definitions from but the link you gave doesn't seem to match.

  • That's just it, the usages you suggest sound weird to me, I would not say The sky shed rain upon the fields. I cannot, however, explain why I would not say that. If you say you would, then perhaps it is I who has a strange concept of the word. I guess I have not really expressed myself clearly, I find it interesting that the word seems restricted to liquids for example, any idea why? The etymology does not seem to restrict it to liquids and it is not so restricted when it means to get rid of as in shed clothes. Thanks for pointing out the wrong link by the way, I added the right one.
    – terdon
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:49
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    The word really isn't restricted to liquids. You restricted it to liquids when you asked the question by only calling out those particular usages that required liquids. :) As for "the sky shed rain" sounding weird, I would say that it sounds archaic. I understand what was meant and that it is correct but would still wrinkle my nose at it and consider it awfully close to purple prose.
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:51
  • Btw, you can make it sound less awkward with context but I didn't feel like writing a short story around clouds shedding rain.
    – MrHen
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:52
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    I would find it somewhat poetic, but not at all weird, to say that a cloud shed its raindrops. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 23:59
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    "He weeps like a wench that had shed her milk" All's well that ends well Act iV, scene iii Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:30

Great or good or OK points. But I think there's more, something deeper - a relationship between pain - emotional or physical - and the word shed.

Sweat: I've never heard of shedding sweat but let's take that one first. Interrogation might, say, be sweaty from a physical response to the emotionally painful stress of verbal pressure to give in, or the tension between giving in and physically induced pain. Strenuous exercise or other kinds of hard, physical effort, as well as exposure to excessive heat - all of which can cause varying levels of pain - will usually result in sweat as well. So sweat generally comes from stress.

Blood: Shedding it, willingly or otherwise, self-inflicted or inflicted upon others, is deliberate. (If there's blood from an accident, we don't usually say shed.) Shedding blood can obviously cause physical pain, and may also involve emotional pain. But with both sweat and blood, both the causes and results are usually Deliberate and Intended, either by us or others.

Tears: (My search for the relationship of the word shed to this one is what brought me to this page.) Both physically and emotionally generated tears can result from all the same kinds of painful stress that cause sweat. And our emotional response to the shedding of blood can easily evoke tears. All that's a given. But my focus on shedding tears is on the emotions that lie beneath them. Those emotions are, of course, sadness and happiness, and all the words we use to describe their varying intensities. Those emotions have causes but they and the tears are Involuntary Responses, not Deliberate, unless one's faking it.

But why do we sometimes shed tears and not just tear up, cry, weep or sob? Here's where I relate this idiom to shedding clothes or a snake shedding its skin, though both of these are deliberate. And here's where my reasoning is admittedly winging it, but I think valid.

The idea is that our tears of happiness or sorrow are emotionally excreting something from us, ridding us of something, releasing something from us - and that something is pain. .. OK, yes, we don't usually think of happiness as painful. But tears shed from - Out Of - happiness are often from the sense of release and relief at the realization that something painful has ended or is ending. And tears we shed when we feel grief, sorrow and sadness are a release of some of the pain, letting it out drop by teardrop, or maybe by a torrent. .. So, I believe, we “shed tears” to shed ourselves of emotional (well, and sometimes physical) pain.

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