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?

  • 3
    where did you find the quote? It's hard to investigate a claim if we don't know who made it. – DougM Jan 25 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 5:06
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    Even if Hall, Wisniewski and Snipes were right about the original meanings of these proverbs, they are wrong to say "The problem is that many of these phrases don't mean what we think". Whatever they might have meant at some past time, they do today mean what we think. – tunny Nov 13 '14 at 9:22

"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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    It feels like the Church attempting to hijack a common phrase, to me, and extending it in an unecessarily biological direction. – Max Williams Oct 26 '17 at 13:10

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 '14 at 5:07
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    This doesn't seem to address the question. – Mitch Sep 5 '17 at 21:34

I can find no reputable sources substantiating the phrase "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb" as the root of "blood is thicker than water".

Jbeldock mentioned an article that references the Troy Book (c. 1420), but the reproduction I found here doesn't seem to mention anything remotely like "blood is thicker than water". In fact, "blood" and "water" never even appear within four lines of each other (maybe more, but that's the closest I looked).


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.

  • 1
    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 '14 at 14:28

Blood is thicker than water is almost certainly not from the extended form. In fact, the phrase of blood being thick is almost certainly from the Talmud:

רוצח גופיה מנא לן סברא הוא דההוא דאתא לקמיה דרבה ואמר ליה אמר לי מרי דוראי זיל קטליה לפלניא ואי לא קטלינא לך אמר ליה לקטלוך ולא תיקטול מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי דילמא דמא דהוא גברא סומק טפי.

In English (just the main part):

Who says your own 'blood is thicker' than the other person's blood? Perhaps his 'blood is thicker' than yours.

  • What does the entire quote say? I tried Google translate and got: A murderer of a [corpse] is a man who does not know what he is saying. He said to him: "Tell me, Mary, Dori, Zill, Catalya, to Pelanya, and if you do not kill him, tell him to kill you, and you shall not kill those who will be cursed." Which makes me confused as to which part the English is from... – Laurel Oct 26 '17 at 14:25
  • @laurel. Its Aramaic. Not Hebrew. The actual words are מי יימר דדמא דידך סומק טפי דילמא דמא דהוא גברא סומק טפי. They can be found in Tractate Sanhedrin page 74a, – TheAsh Oct 28 '17 at 19:12
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    Now that I know where to look, I found some other translations of that passage, but both say "blood is redder" (not thicker). There is also no connection there to the rest of the idiom (the water part). Without any evidence (e.g. in historical usage) of a connection between this and the idiom, I am not convinced at all they are related. – Laurel Oct 28 '17 at 19:47
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    @Laurel as an Aramaic speaker, I can assure you the translation is thicker. – TheAsh Oct 30 '17 at 12:37

I had always assumed that the water referred to was the water of baptism -- the tie which binds Christians to one another in the Christian community -- and the blood is the 'blood tie' -- the relationship we have by virtue of (what we now know as) our genetic heritage.

It's saying that, when it comes to the crunch, our family responsibilities and relationships count more than our relationships and responsibilities to fellow-Christians (or, in earlier generations when all were baptised, fellow-citizens).

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage @Dick. You seem to be going off on your own tangent here. The question doesn't mention Christianity - check out what covenant actually means. Check out the help center to learn how to write stronger answers - your post would be improved if it included a reference and an explanation of why it answers the question. – andy256 Dec 27 '14 at 11:52
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    @andy Covenant has plenty of non-Christian meanings; but I for one have never seen the phrase blood of the covenant used for anything not Christianity-related. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 27 '14 at 15:12
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    @andy256 I think he is saying that this phrase has its origin in a time when the vast majority of the western world considered itself Christian and baptism was the mark of citizenship in the nation. This is actually quite credible. – Kazark Apr 21 '15 at 1:08

protected by tchrist Dec 27 '14 at 16:03

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