Splitting the baby

The Judgment of Solomon by Gustav Dore16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house. 19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.
23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.

I Kings 3:16-28 (English Standard Version)

“Great Solomon’s ghost! Did you have to include the whole dadblained passage? Couldn’t you have just split the baby and post half of it?”

No. And you just demonstrated why.

Splitting the baby, an attention-getting turn of phrase for sure, has its origins in this Biblical narrative. Directly preceding this passage is one in which God asks the young King Solomon, who has just taken the throne amidst a power struggle, to ask him for anything he wants. Instead of riches of fame, Solomon asks for wisdom to rule wisely. God is very happy at this choice. He grants Solomon this wisdom – just in time for this difficult she said-she said case. In the days before genetic testing, Solomon demonstrated both a clever mind and a keen understanding of human nature by “splitting the baby.”

Today, most people display neither cleverness nor understanding, especially when they use this term. Observe this gem from the New York Times:

Mr. Jobs rarely split the baby. And while there is no doubt that we’re moving toward a world devoid of spinning hard disks and optical drives, Apple clearly wants to give its customers the option to buy the older tech.

It is splitting the baby.

Or this one from Forbes, an article titled “Good Negotiators Don’t Split Babies”:

Splitting the baby is a common but ineffective strategy for resolving a dispute or negotiating a good business deal.

Successful negotiators don’t settle for splitting the difference between two unacceptable proposals.

Yes, those are the two opening paragraphs, and you will notice they reveal what this author (and so many other) thinks splitting the baby means: splitting the difference.

NO. If you mean “splitting the difference,” use the phrase splitting the difference, not splitting the baby. You “split the baby” if you propose an ingenious and drastic solution to an intractable problem, especially one that results in neither party getting what they want. Of course, it is instructive that Solomon knew he wouldn’t have to split the baby. The threat itself was enough to solve the problem.

Since ingenuity and creative thinking are discouraged in the business world, you will probably never find occasion to use splitting the baby in its correct form. Which is for the better. I’d hate to see what most managers do when handed a newborn and a sharp object.

Otto E. Mezzo

See also Gordian knot, another unsolvable problem requiring an unorthodox solution. And also washing one’s hands (of a problem), another Biblical reference.



Sighting: House Democrats brace for some defections among moderates on impeachment of Trump


2 thoughts on “Splitting the baby”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *