removing all doubt?

Tonight in my class we discussed, among other things, an article on the use of silence in Western Apache culture.* In this culture, people often remain silent in circumstances when people from mainstream American culture would be inclined to talk. Such situations include reunions of children returning from boarding schools with their parents, meetings of young couples who are courting, and meetings between strangers.

It may seem strange to think of people refraining to speak in these cases, but if you think about it, many cultures have a tendency to “fill the void” with idle chit chat. Talk about the the weather, or about near-meaningless nothings:

    A: So how’ve you been?
    B: Oh, fine. You?
    A: Not too bad.
    B: Good, good.
    A: So, um…uh…nice weather we’re having.
    B: Uh…yup. It’s warm out.
    A: Warmer than expected.
    B: Blah, blah, blah, blah, warm.
    A: Blah, blah, blah pants.
    B: Blah blah minotaur.

I couldn’t help but remember, or half remember, this saying:

    “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Problem was, I couldn’t entirely remember the wording of it, or who said it. Apparently there’s a reason for this:

Searches on “better to keep your mouth closed” and “better to remain silent” (using the quotation marks in both cases) turned up numerous web pages, all offering different versions of the phrase. Some sources quoted the saying as “It’s far better…”, some substituted the words “stupid,” “ignorant,” or “simpleton” for the word “fool,” and still others twisted the saying into an almost unrecognizable form.

A page titled Mark Twain and the Mutating Quote attributed at least four variations of the same phrase to the eminently quotable Twain, explaining that it was a case of “split personality” that accounted for the variations, rather than a rash of misquotes.

Other pages suggested a number of other authors for the saying, including: Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Groucho Marx, Albert Einstein, and a mysterious figure named Silvan Engel.

Googling even came up with attributions to Confucius. Plus I’ve found stuff ending in “leave no doubt,” and even more variations.

So, to quote the wise/illustrious/immortal/venerable/witty and/or possibly fictitious Confucius/Twain/Lincoln/Eliot/

    “It’s (far)? better to ((remain|keep|stay) (silent|quiet)|(keep your mouth shut)) and be (thought|considered) a (fool|idiot|total dork) than to (speak|open your mouth|blather on) and (remove all|leave no room for) doubt.”

Ah, right. I’ll shut up now.

*Basso, K.H. 1972. “To give up on words: Silence in Apache culture.” In P.P. Giglioli, Ed. Language and Social Context. pp. 67-86.

3 thoughts on “removing all doubt?

  1. has this filed under ‘doubt’:
    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” -Abraham Lincoln.
    And Wikiquote has it rather anonymously placed in a massive list of English proverbs as:
    It’s better to be silent and thought a fool, then [sic] to speak up and remove all doubt.

    I don’t know how helpful that could possibly be, but methinks it’s becoming less important who said it.

    By the way, have you done that stuff on conversational implicature and the cultural etiquette of space? New Yorkers pause between turns for about a third of the time that Native Americans do, and the average Japanese person sits/stands half of the distance away from another as the average outback (white) Australian.

  2. Jaŋari-
    Yes, oodles of variation. Lincoln and Twain seem to be the most frequently “cited”, though it does seem likely that neither of them actually originated the saying. What’s sort of funny is that for some reason, people want to attribute this to someone specific, whereas I agree that it’s not so important who did say it (first).

    I haven’t really encountered much (at least formally) with the cultural etiquette of space. It sounds interesting, though. I also find it interesting that we are inclined to extend the spatial metaphor to silence/speaking.

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