Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Maurice Switzer? Arthur Burns? John Maynard Keynes? Confucius? Anonymous?

lincolntwain05Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an entertaining saying that is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain:

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) investigated the saying and presented the earliest known attribution to Lincoln in Golden Book magazine in November 1931: 2 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

Here 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 Illinois. 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 origin 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.”

In conclusion, there is no substantive evidence that this popular adage was coined or employed by Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. The earliest ascriptions to these famous figures appeared many years post death. QI thinks that Maurice Switzer is currently the top choice for coiner of the expression though future data may reveal alternative claimants.

Update history: On February 5, 2013 the article was rewritten to include more information about ascriptions to Mark Twain.

Notes:

  1. Proverbs 17:28 has many translations. Here is a link to a webpage with several from the Online Parallel Bible Project of Biblos.com. (Accessed Bible.cc on October 24, 2012) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Abraham Lincoln, Page 466, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1931 November, Golden Book Magazine, Volume 14, Quote Page 306, Published by The Review of Reviews Corporation, Albert Shaw, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, Section: What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, Page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 83, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1887, Proverbs, Maxims, and Phrases of All Ages, Compiled by Robert Christy, Page 268, The Knickerbocker Press, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1893 August 8, Stamford Mirror, Jewels of Thought, Page 1, Column 3, Stamford, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1922 December 17, Duluth Sunday News-Tribune (Duluth News-Tribune), (Headline across top of page beneath newspaper name and date), Section: Society, Page 1, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1923 June 19, The Crescent (Evansville Crescent), (One quotation in a set of three freestanding quotes), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Evansville, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1924 June 10, Seattle Daily Times, Section: Sports, Bob’s Sportitorials, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1931 March 22, Omaha World Herald, Rockwell Tells How to Behave Like a Human Being by ‘Doc’ Rockwell, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1931 May 25, Albany Evening News, As I Think It by Tony Wons, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Albany New York. (Old Fulton)
  14. 1931 October 16, Daily Northwestern, Our Public, (Letter to the Editor from “Not so swell”), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1936 July 13, Omaha World Herald, You Answer It, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  16. 1938 June 1, The Evening Independent, Free Speeches by Lee Morris, Page 4, Column 3, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  17. 1953 May 29, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, It’s Always Same Answer by Jane Gale, Page 13, Column 3, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Google News Archive)
  18. 1958 April 20, New York Times, Keynes Re-Examined: The Man, the Theory by Henry C. Wallich, Start Page SM13, Quote Page SM13, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  19. 1961, Mark Twain: Wit and Wisecracks, Edited by Doris Benardete, Quote Page 18, Peter Pauper Press, White Plains, New York. (Verified with scans)
  20. 1962 March 21, Aiken Standard and Review, Phraseologies, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Aiken, South Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  21. 1980 December 26, The Citizen [Ottawa Citizen], Action Line by Roger Appleton, Subsection: Calm, Reasonable Approach Best, Quote Page 49, Column 1, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Google News Archive)

8 thoughts on “Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

  1. The old norse poem, Havamal (verse 27 to be precise), contains a similar sentiment:

    “For the unwise man ’tis best to be mute
    when he come amid the crowd,
    for none is aware of his lack of wit
    if he wastes not too many words;
    for he who lacks wit shall never learn
    though his words flow ne’er so fast.”
    (translation by Olive Bray)

    Interestingly, the translation on one page (http://www.beyondweird.com/high-one.html) contains a footnote comparing it to the latin “praestat tacere et stultus haberi quam edicere
    et omne dubium removere”, but that does not strike me as original latin.

  2. WE really need an ironclad site that can be depended on to go to when someone decides to either plagerize or mis-quote, or as I call it “hurt-quote” someone. This site might be the place – I wish to GOD it is!

  3. Chris Maher: I do my best to trace quotes accurately. Yet, this website is currently rather small. The universe of quotations is vast and this site has an in-depth analysis of 218 quotations. Take a look at the “Resources” page linked near the top of the web page for other suggestions for tracing quotes. Thanks for visiting.

  4. Garson, Thanks for the work on the silence quote. Careful attribution is difficult and with Lincoln involved its doubly so. Because of the public’s (and my personal) adoration of Lincoln it natural to presume that any pithy saying comes from him. Who dares deny it. But letting the evidence lead you and not emotional bias generally gets you to the right place, maybe Lincoln said that.

  5. Coincidentally, after reading this post yesterday, a colleague prepared a quiz of quotes this morning. The answer given for “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt” was Mark Twain, which if true would likely predate Switzer.

    It’s certainly been attributed to him in a couple of books, but I couldn’t pin down anything specific with a brief search. Anyone with better searching skills than me?

  6. I’ve always heard that this was a quote from Mark Twain; however, the Proverbs cite certainly shows that it’s been around in one form or another for quite a while.

  7. It does, indeed, sound like something that Mark Twain would have said. That’s not really grounds for attributing it to him, though.

    As for the candidate for attribution here, isn’t it just as likely that the book was made up of lesser-known folk rhymes that simply evaded meaningful records? I suppose we’ll never know.

  8. I learned this saying as a kid, about 50 years ago, and I distinctly remember learning it from reading MAD Magazine.

    My memory could be wrong about this modern usage. But I’ve known it a long time, I have a memory of the source, and I can’t think of any other source from which I learned anything that useful as a kid. I know it wasn’t in the Boy Scout Manual.

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