The phrase “blood is thicker than water” has two conflicting interpretations:
- That family ties are stronger than anything else. In other words, family is the most important thing.
- That men who create a blood-bond have stronger ties than brothers who shared a womb.
The second interpretation claims that the phrase “blood is thicker than water” is a shortened version of a longer (but newly invented) proverb: “blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb”.
You can see that these two interpretations are opposites! One says family is the most important thing. The other says some relationships are more important than families.
In my research, the first interpretation seems to be the original and the second is a modern misinterpretation.
In this article, I’ll dissect the competing interpretations to help you make up your own mind!
Meaning 1: Blood is Thicker than Water
The most common meaning for the proverb blood is thicker than water is that blood ties (people who share your blood, i.e. your family) are stronger than any other ties.
The reason water is placed in the proverb is also unclear, but it’s most widely attested to an old German phrase, discussed next.
Origins of Blood is Thicker than Water
Blood is thicker than water originates from Germanic and Scottish proverbs. The Scottish origins of this phrase seem to be the most direct connections to our current usage of the term.
1. Germanic Origin
One of the earliest references to this proverb is in Heinrich der Glîchezære’s 1180 poem Reinhart Fuchs (in English: “Reynard the Fox”). In the story, he writes:
“I moreover hear it said, family blood isn’t demolished by water.”
It’s believed that he meant to say here that family remains an important thing, even if your family lives overseas. You might expect this saying to have arisen at such a time when Germanic people were migrating north, leaving their family behind on continental Europe.
2. Scottish Origin
Several Scottish and Irish sources in the 1800s began using the phrase “blood is thicker than water” as a proverb:
- Allan Ramsay’s 1737 book An Excellent Collection of the Best Scotch Proverbs.
- Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 book Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer.
- John Moore’s 1789 book Zeluco: Various Views of Human Nature Taken from Life and Manners.
- John Murray’s 1825 Letters from the Irish Highlands.
Some excerpts from the above sources include:
“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, Zeluco: Various Views of Human Nature Taken from Life and Manners, 1789)
“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.”
(John Murray, Letters from the Irish Highlands, 1825)
From these, it seems the proverb was somewhat well known and used in Scottish and Irish discourse by the late 18th Century. And, it seems the proverb was used to refer to the importance of kinship ties, which were particularly strong among highland clans.
In my opinion, the above information reaffirms that the phrase “blood is thicker than water” does traditionally highlight the importance of family ties above all others.
Meaning 2: Blood of the Covenant is Thicker than the Water of the Womb
But more recent commentators have highlighted that the proverb may have been a misinterpretation of an older, unwritten, proverb whose full phraseology is:
“The Blood of the Covenant is Thicker than the Water of the Womb.”
This means that people who make a blood-bond or blood-pact become more bonded than brothers who shared a womb.
This phrase gets its authority from Proverbs 18:24:
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
To me, this is a long stretch. Proverbs 18:24 does not refer to blood nor water. Nevertheless, its meaning is that some relationships are stronger than family ties.
Origins of Blood of the Covenant is Thicker than Water of the Womb
The term blood of the covenant is thicker than water of the womb seems to originate from a misinterpretation of Henry Clay Trumbull.
He cited an Arabic proverb Blood is Thicker than Milk as one that’s opposite to the English proverb Blood is thicker than water. But he never used the phrase “water of the womb”.
1. Misinterpretation of Henry Clay Trumbull
Henry Clay Trumbull wrote The Blood Covenant in 1885.
One chapter, titled blood is thicker than water, supposedly lays claim to the fact that the proverb has been misquoted over the years and advocates that it should be read as the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.
However, in reading the book myself, it appears Trumbull never truly said that the English phrase is a misquote of anything, and I cannot identify a point when he ever used the phrase “the water of the womb” at all.
So, it seems to me that Trumbull has simply been misquoted.
Those who quote Trumbull – including Richard Pustelniak and James Lindemann – seem to either have access to a version of Trumbull’s text with a section in it that is not widely available, or, they are misquoting Trumbull.
2. The Islamic Proverb “Blood is Thicker than Milk”
What Trumbull does say is that the English phrase ‘Blood is thicker than water’ is different to the Arabic phrase ‘Blood is thicker than water’.
He doesn’t say that the English misinterpreted the phrase. He simply says they’re two different phrases with different meanings:
“We, in the West, are accustomed to say that ” blood is thicker than water “; but the Arabs have the idea that blood is thicker than milk, than a mother’s milk. […] The Arabs hold that brothers in the covenant of blood are closer than brothers at a common breast; that those who have tasted each other’s blood are in a surer covenant than those who have tasted the same milk together.”
This Islamic proverb highlights that men who make a blood bond (an agreement sealed by creating a cut on the palm then shaking hands) have a closer bond than men share their mother’s milk (i.e. brothers).
Here, we can see there is a different proverb that has the second meaning (family ties are not as strong as social ties). But, this is a completely different and unrelated proverb.
The phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’ appears, simply, to be a modern invention with little historical basis.
Overall, it seems that the proverb “blood is thicker than water” traditionally meant that family ties are stronger than social ties.
The newer interpretation seems to be a misinterpretation. Nevertheless, both make sense in their own right, and both could be useful! The English language is dynamic and we are inventing new proverbs all the time.
As writers and historians, we can take note of how new phrases emerged out of interest (and to dispel misinterpretation). But, just because a proverb is new, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If you want to use the “blood of covenant” version, I have no problem with that! But, now you know … it seems to be a new invention.
I’m Chris and I run this website – a resource about symbolism, metaphors, idioms, and a whole lot more! Thanks for dropping by.