Silence and smile - Daily Net

Silence and smile

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.

The phrasing is different, but I think these two statements express the same thought. When I mentioned this adage to a friend he claimed that it was in the Bible, but it does not sound very Biblical to me. Can you resolve this dispute?

Quote Investigator: There is a biblical proverb that expresses a similar idea, namely Proverbs 17:28. Here is the New International Version followed by the King James Version of this verse: 1

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

The quotations that the questioner listed use a distinctive formulation that is certainly more humorous. In the biblical version one is thought wise if one remains silent, but in the questioner’s statements the word “wise” is not used. Remaining silent simply allows one to avoid the fate of being thought a fool or stupid. This maxim has many different forms, and it is often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, there is no substantive evidence that either of these famous individuals employed the maxim.

The wonderful Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) 2 investigated the saying and presented the earliest known attribution to Lincoln in Golden Book magazine in November 1931: 3

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
— ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

Since Lincoln died in 1865 this is a suspiciously late instance, and it provides very weak evidence. Further, YBQ indicated that the phrase was in use years before this date with no attachment to Lincoln. The ascription of the saying to Mark Twain is also dubious.

When Ken Burns filmed a documentary about Mark Twain in 2001 a companion book was released, and it listed the following version of the quote in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say”: 4

Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

The earliest known appearance of the adage discovered by QI occurred in a book titled “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer. The publication date was 1907 and the copyright notice was 1906. The book was primarily filled with clever nonsense verse, and the phrasing in this early version was slightly different: 5

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Most of the humorous content of “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” has the imprint of originality, and based on currently available data QI believes that Maurice Switzer is the leading candidate for originator of the expression. This 1906 citation was also given in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, an indispensable new reference work from Yale University Press. 6

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

There are many proverbs extolling silence. Several examples from an 1887 collection called “Proverbs, Maxims, and Phrases of All Ages” are reminiscent of the biblical proverb: 7

Silence is the virtue of those who are not wise
Silence is wisdom and gets a man friends
Silence is wisdom when speaking is folly

In 1893 a New York newspaper printed a column titled “Jewels of Thought” that included an alternative maxim presenting a different rationale for silence: 8

It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth ill-humoredly, and spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce.—St. Francis de Sales.

In 1907 a version of the maxim appeared in “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer as noted previously in this article:

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

The choice of Switzer’s book title is illuminated by the fact that another book, “Father Goose, His Book”, was a popular sensation in 1899. The author of that book, L. Frank Baum, went on to write an even bigger hit “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (Thanks to John Baker for pointing this out.)

In 1922 the saying was printed as a banner on the front page of the Society section of a Minnesota newspaper. The words were credited to a person or entity named Empeco. The phrase “keep quiet” was used instead of “remain silent”: 9

It Is Better to Keep Quiet and Be Thought a Fool Than to Speak and Remove All Doubt.—Empeco

In 1923 the adage was published in the newspaper of Evansville College (now University) in Indiana. The word “thought” was spelled “thot”: 10

‘Tis better to keep quiet and be thot a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

In 1924 an instance of the saying was credited to a person named Arthur Burns: 11

“It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool.” says Dr. Arthur Burns, “than to speak and remove all doubts.”

In March 1931 a humorist with the moniker ‘Doc’ Rockwell presented a version of the maxim with the phrase “keep your mouth shut” instead of “remain silent”, “keep silent”, or “keep quiet”: 12

Some great man once made a famous remark about something or other that I will never forget. I can’t recall it at this moment, but it was to the effect that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool than to keep it open and leave no doubt about the matter.

In May 1931 a columnist printed a version with “dumb” instead of “fool”. No attribution was given: 13

Listen to this: “It is better to be silent and be thought dumb, than to speak and remove all doubt!”

In October 1931 the student newspaper of Northwestern University published a letter to the editor defending gangster Al Capone which contained another instance of the adage with “keep your mouth shut”: 14

But when you try to dictate what to do to others, remember this—It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt!

In November 1931 the saying was assigned to Abraham Lincoln in Golden Book Magazine as noted previously. This is the earliest known ascription to the famous President:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
— ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

In 1936 the maxim was printed in a Nebraska newspaper where it was rephrased as a question and an Asiatic was suggested: 15

YOU ANSWER IT.
(Old Chinese Proverb.)
Is it better to keep your mouth shut and seem a fool, or to open your mouth and remove all doubt?

In 1938 the words of the aphorism were ascribed to Confucius, but the intent was jocular: 16

The following wise-crack was written by Confucius—unless I’m confusing him with somebody else:
“It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

In 1953 a columnist in a Saskatoon, Canada newspaper assigned the expression to Mark Twain. Currently, this is the earliest connection to Twain known to QI: 17

Maybe Mark Twain had something when he said, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it,” and often, in these cases, it’s the informant who feels the fool.

In 1958 the New York Times published a profile of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, and the article noted that a version of the dictum had been attributed to Keynes: 18

“It is better to keep quiet and seem ignorant,” he reportedly advised an American dignitary, “than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

The aphorism appeared in the 1961 collection “Mark Twain: Wit and Wisecracks” edited by Doris Benardete. No citation to Twain’s oeuvre was provided: 19

It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

The ascription to Abraham Lincoln has been common for decades. In 1962 a South Carolina newspaper printed this: 20

Abe Lincoln said:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt

Sometimes Mark Twain has been assigned the version of the maxim using the phrase “remain silent”. For example, in 1980 a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada printed the following: 21

Mark Twain put it well .. “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt.”

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