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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?

  • 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
9

"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.

  • 6
    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
7

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.

  • 4
    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
3

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).

1

The evidence I found is consistent with the proverb being originally Gaelic, with it entering English in Scotland, and with it always having meant what it means today. As for the purported “original meaning”, I cannot trace it back any further than 1994.

Early occurrences

All the early occurrences of the proverb that I can find appear in Scottish or Irish contexts, and where the meaning is clear from context it is the same as the modern meaning.

  • 1737   A. Ramsay A Collection of Scots Proverbs vii. 13   Blood’s thicker than Water.

    Oxford English Dictionary

    The proverb appears on page 256 of the 1814 reprint.

  • Is teughaidh fuil no burn.

    Blood is thicker than water.

    Donald Macintosh (1785). A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs, and Familiar Phrases, p. 50. Edinburgh.

    ‘Teughaidh’ must be the comparative of ‘tiugh’ meaning ‘thick’, though it is more usually spelled ‘tiughe’ or ‘tighe’.

  • “I do feel that I like my old friends the better in proportion as I increase my new acquaintance. So you see there is little danger of my forgetting them, and far less my blood relations; for surely blood is thicker than water.”

    John Moore (1789). Zeluco: Various Views of Human Nature Taken from Life and Manners, Foreign and Domestic, volume II, pp. 110–111. London: A Strahan & T. Cadell.

    John Moore (1729–1802) was a Scottish physician and writer, and the character, George Buchanan, is described as “a Scotchman”.

  • Blood’s thicker than water.

    John Ray; revised by John Belfour (1813). A Complete Collection of English Proverbs, fifth edition, p. 281. London: George Cowie.

    This appears under the heading “Scottish Proverbs”. The fifth edition is the earliest in which the proverb appears: it is missing in the fourth edition (1768), the third edition (1737), and an 1818 reprint of the second edition (1678). I was unable to find the first (1670) edition online but I doubt that the proverb would have appeared there only to be removed in the second edition and then restored in the fifth.

  • The first words he said when he had digested the shock, contained a magnanimous declaration, which he probably was not conscious of having uttered aloud—“Weel—blood’s thicker than water—she’s welcome to the cheeses and the hams just the same.”

    Walter Scott (1815). Guy Mannering, volume III, p. 318. Edinburgh: James Ballantine

    Walter Scott was a Scottish novelist and the speaker, Dinmont, is described as a “Scotch store-farmer”.

  • To your remarks on the spirit of clanship in Ireland, I answer in the words of an old tenant, who claims a sort of left-handed connexion in generations long since gone by; and the other day enforced his plea for unusual favour, by “Sure and isn’t blood thicker than water, your Honour?” The ties of family and kindred are indeed held in peculiar veneration in Ireland

    ‘M.’ Letter XXIX in Letters from the Irish Highlands (1825), p. 203. London: John Murray.

Wikipedia

The Wikipedia article is a farrago of errors, omissions, and irrelevancies:

  • “The oldest record of this saying can be traced back in the 12th century in German.” The only evidence presented for this claim is these two lines from the poem Reinhard Fuchs (c. 1180) by Heinrich der Glïchezäre:

    ouch hœrich sagen, daz sippebluot
    von wazzer niht verdirbet

    Jacob Grimm (1834). Reinhart Fuchs, lines 266–7, p. 34. Berlin: Reimer.

    (“I hear it also said, that kin-blood is not spoiled by water”.) No evidence is given that the modern proverb traces back to this version, which Grimm says is “sonst nicht gelesene”, that is, not found anywhere else:

    266 das sonst nicht gelesene sprichwort wird etwa den sinn haben, dass tause die bande des bluts nicht löse, auf den sohn Diezelin also des vaters gesinnungen übergegangen seien.

    The otherwise unread proverb will have the sense, that the bond of blood is not broken, and thus the son of Diezelin has taken up his father’s beliefs.

    Grimm, p. 105.

  • “By 1670, the modern version was included in John Ray’s collected Proverbs.” This is false, as discussed above: the proverb first appears in the fifth edition (1813) of this work.

  • “Modern commentators, including authors Albert Jack and R. Richard Pustelniak, claim the original meaning of the expression was that the ties between people who’ve made a blood covenant were stronger than ties formed by ‘the water of the womb’.”

    Let’s take a look at the quality of these references. First, Jack:

    The phrase ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Water’ suggests that family bonds of trust and loyalty are stronger than those friendships we make for ourselves. I for one have never believed this, and was unable to work out the ‘water’ connection until I started to look at the many biblical references to the phrase. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, blood rituals symbolized bonds that were far greater than those of the family. Hence the bond between ‘Blood Brothers’—warriors who symbolically share the blood they have shed together in battle—is far stronger than the one between you and the boy you grew up with who kept pinching your records. In addition, there is an expression dating back three thousand years that tells us: ‘The blood of the covenant is far stronger than the water of the womb’, which is a forerunner of the phrase we use today. In modern times, we understand ‘blood’ to be the bloodline of a family, but, as you can see, that is not the original meaning of the expression at all. Its meaning has thus been corrupted over the centuries, probably by the English nobility of the Middle Ages to whom the ‘blood line’ was all important.

    Albert Jack (2005). Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep: The Origins of Even More Phrases We Use Every Day, p. 95. Penguin.

    Jack gives no references for any of this, and several aspects of it are quite implausible. If there are “many biblical references” to the phrase, then why not mention the best one? The claimed meaning of “blood brother” is not any of the usual meanings found in reference works. An “expression dating back three thousand years” would surely have left written traces in that time. It is hard to avoid the impression that Jack is just making things up, especially when you turn the page and discover his claim that the phrase “butter someone up” comes ultimately from a Tang Dynasty tradition “known as ‘buttering up the Buddha’”.

    Second, Pustelniak:

    “Blood is thicker than water.” This phrase has completely lost its original, covenant-related, meaning. Today, it is interpreted as meaning that blood-related family members are to be considered as more important than anyone else. However, the original meaning is, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” or, “My relationship with those to whom I am joined in covenant is to be considered of more value than the relationship with a brother with whom I may have shared the womb.”

    “…there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother." (Proverbs 18:24) The term friend has also lost its original meaning. More than an acquaintance, or one that I have some amount of affection for, it is actually a term to be used to refer to one with whom I am joined, in covenant.

    R. Richard Pustelniak (1994). ‘How Shall I Know? The Blood Covenant’. www.bac2torah.com/covenant-Print.htm

    The web site bac2torah.com is run by Beit Avanim Chaiot, a Messianic Jewish congregation in Tucson, Arizona, and the page had the same text when the Internet Archive first captured it in 2010. There are no references.

Henry Clay Trumbull

If I search Google Books for “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” then I find the following quotation, allegedly from Henry Clay Trumbull, in a work by James Lindemann:

The phrase “Blood is thicker than water” did not mean that blood-related family members were to be considered as more important than anyone else—the original meaning was, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This is reflected in “… there is a friend [the Covenant-related word used in II Chronicles 20:7, ‘Are You not our God, … Abraham Your friend forever?’] that sticks closer than a brother.” [Proverbs 18:24].

— Trumbull13.

James Lindemann (2011). Covenant: The Blood is The Life, p. 15. Lindemann and Son.

This is so similar in wording to Pustelniak that one must derive from the other, or both from a common source. The relevant notes in Lindemann are as follows:

3 H. Clay Trumbull, THE BLOOD COVENANT: A Primitive Rite and Its Bearing on Scripture (Reprint Publisher: Kirkwood, Mo.: Impact Christian Books, 1975); First Edition Preface dated August 14, 1885; Second Edition Preface dated January 30, 1893.

13 Ibid, 11f.

Lindemann pp. 411–413.

Lindemann thus cites this passage to the 1975 reprint of Trumbull’s The Blood Covenant. But that edition is searchable on amazon.com and although it has a section titled “Blood is thicker than water”, this passage is not found there. Additionally, the first (1885), second (1893) and third (1898) editions of The Blood Covenant are all available on the Internet Archive and none contains this passage. I can only conclude that Lindemann’s citation of this passage to Trumbull is in error, and either:

  1. Lindemann invented the passage (but this seems unlikely because of the close similarity with Pustelniak); or

  2. Lindemann got the passage from someone else (from Pustelniak’s source or from Pustelniak himself).

0

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
-1

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
-3

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).

  • 1
    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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