January 27, 2017
It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
Believe it or not, the first time I heard of this adage was on The Cosby Show.
As I was researching this famous saying, I came across a number of images and websites that often attributed the saying to two men in particular. From BrainyQuote, Lifehack.org, The Quotations Page, and a PDF I imagine was from California State University Bakersfield, either Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain was credited with the adage.
I have even seen the Bible as being the source of the saying — or a least the sentiment.
Who first uttered this saying? Well, from what I found, it appears neither man did. And the Bible verse that is pointed out is vastly different from the saying we have today.
Was the Adage First Found in the Bible?
I would have to say no. Proverbs 17:28 is cited, but the words are not nearly the same.
Here is a version of Proverbs 17:28 from the New International Version of the Bible:
Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.
And here is a version from the King James Version of the Bible:
Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
Well Then, Who Coined the Adage?
The quote “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool…” is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, without any proof. The same is true about Mark Twain.
The first comprehensive source I visited was an article entitled, “Putting Words in Mark Twain’s Mouth” by Carl M. Cannon. Carl M. Cannon extols the virtues of using Twitter to become abreast of goings on in the political world, but warns that social media is ripe for misinformation. For instance, quotes are often misattributed to various authors and figures, especially on Twitter, since it’s easy to make a post and reach millions of users.
In the case of Mark Twain, many quotes were misattributed to him and Cannon wrote his article to set readers straight.
Cannon said websites like Brainyquote and Thinkexist.com “are essentially Internet compost piles.” And he consults sources I also found during my search.
The Yale Book of Quotations said Abraham Lincoln was first attributed with the quote in Golden Book magazine in November 1931.This was affirmed by Fred Shapiro, the author of the Yale Book of Quotations (via Freakonomics), but he erroneously credited Lincoln in the book.
The other source cited by Cannon was the Quote Investigator, which pinpointed the earliest versions of the adage.
The earliest known use of the adage can be found in Mrs. Goose, Her Book by Maurice Switzer. (The book was published in 1907. It has a 1906 copyright.)
It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.
However, it seems as if Switzer’s words were in part inspired by an earlier work. In 1893, a column titled “Jewels of Thought” appearing in a New York Newspaper had this quote attributed to St. Francis de Sales:
It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth ill-humoredly, and spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce.
Mark Twain was credited with the phrase in 1953 by a columnist in a Saskatoon, Canada newspaper. This might be the earliest connection made to Twain.
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.
What Does ‘It Is Better to Remain Silent …’ Mean?
In this untitled essay about Abraham Lincoln, Jessie Head from Fisher High School (in Fisher, IL) talks about a quote oft attributed to the 16th president of the United States. He has an interesting spin on the quote:
I think this quote means that you shouldn’t worry about the people that doubt you, look at the ones that have faith in what you’re doing. There were many people that doubted Lincoln’s abilities from the very beginning, there were also several people who believed in him. Why pay any attention to the disbelievers and try to make them come on your side when you can turn to the faithful. There will always be those who will always be against you. It is wiser to not waste your breath on those people; speak to the ones who have followed from the start.
But more often, when someone uses the saying, they mean it in a condescending way. In this case, the person being addressed is already considered a “fool” and this is a superfluous way of telling that person to be silent. Basically, the “fool” has nothing (of value) to say and speaking with thus confirm it.
Do I Agree with This Saying?
To put it nicely …
I don’t like it when someone who is uniformed about a particular topic speaks up and does their darnest to drown out someone who is well-versed in the topic, or at least more knowledgeable of it. That really grinds my gears.
Also, people tend to embarrass themselves when they speak about anything when they don’t have enough information.
Another thing that bothers me is when people who crave attention but offer little are given it. At the same time, those who have a lot on their mind and something interesting to say are often ignored.
On a personal note, I try my best to avoid discussions when I don’t have enough information or anything much to add.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. – Abraham Lincoln.” BrainyQuote. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin109276.html>.
Cannon, Carl M. “Putting Words in Mark Twain’s Mouth.” RealClearPolitics. 10 Dec 2012. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/12/10/fake_twain_quotes_and_other_hazards_of_twitter_116376.html>.
Head, Jessie. No Title. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://www.alplm.org/272viewessay.aspx?id=740>.
O’Toole, Garson. “Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt.” Quote Investigator. 17 May 2010. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/17/remain-silent/>.
“Proverbs 17:28.” Let God be True! Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://www.letgodbetrue.com/proverbs/commentaries/17_28.php>.
“Quote Details: Abraham Lincoln: ‘Tis better to be…” The Quotations Page. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/844.html>.
Shapiro, Fred. “Quotes Uncovered: Honest Abe.” Freakonomics. 3 May 2011. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2017. <http://freakonomics.com/2011/05/03/quotes-uncovered-honest-abe/>.