A Baby Learns To Speak in Two Years, But It Takes a Lifetime To Learn To Keep Quiet

Ernest Hemingway? Mark Twain? Luke McLuke? Lydia DeVilbiss? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Frederick B. Wilcox? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While searching the twitter database I encountered the following two similar jokes:

(1) Humans need two years to learn to speak and sixty years to learn to shut up.

(2) It takes two years to learn to talk, and the rest of your life to control your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway received credit for the first, and Mark Twain received credit for the second. I am skeptical of both of these ascriptions. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that either of these famous quotation magnets employed this quip. The expression is highly variable which makes this large family of quips difficult to trace, and this article will only present a snapshot of current research.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1909 editorial published in a Wenatchee, Washington newspaper. The context indicated that the quip was already in circulation; hence, the ascription was anonymous. The word “exuberance” was misspelled as “exhuberance”: 1

It is unfortunate that Charles R. Crane, who was recently designated as minister to China should have been led by an exhuberance of enthusiasm and interest in Oriental affairs to make remarks which might prove embarrassing to the administration. His indiscretion gives emphasis to the remark that it takes a person two years to learn how to talk and all the rest of his life to learn to keep from talking too much.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1913 an instance in a St. Petersburg, Florida newspaper was labelled an “old saying”: 2

There’s an old saying that it takes a human being two years to learn how to talk and then he spends the rest of his life learning to keep his mouth shut.

In December 1913 a version using “baby” appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Michigan with an acknowledgement to another paper: 3

It takes a baby a little over a year to learn how to talk, but it takes a longer time than that to learn not to.—New Orleans Picayune.

In September 1915 a version appeared in the widely distributed column “Bits of Byplay” by Luke McLuke of “The Cincinnati Enquirer” in Ohio: 4

A man can learn to talk in two years. But it takes him all the rest of his life to learn to keep his mouth shut.

Two days later a newspaper in Elwood, Indiana published this close variant with “lifetime”: 5

A man learns to talk in two years but it takes him a lifetime to learn to keep his mouth shut.

Another two days later a newspaper in Macon, Mississippi printed this variant mentioning “forty two”: 6

It takes a baby about two years to learn how to talk—a man, forty-two, to learn silence.

In March 1917 the words of Luke McLuke were recalled in a slightly garbled form. The phrase “learn to walk” replaced “learn to talk”: 7

Luke McLuke says that a man can learn to walk in two years, but it takes him all the rest of his life to learn to keep his mouth shut. And you certainly have noticed, Luke, that very few men ever live long enough to learn the lesson so they can say it off the book, as it were.

Also, in March 1917 Dr. Lydia DeVilbiss of Topeka, Kansas employed a variant with “three years” instead of “two years” while addressing a Women’s Civic Club: 8

Another statement Dr. DeVilbiss made which caused a smile to go around was that it takes a child three years to learn to talk, and the rest of his life to learn to keep his mouth shut.

In 1920 the joke reappeared in the column “Bits of Byplay” by Luke McLuke, but the barb began with a “boy baby”: 9

It takes a boy baby about a year to learn how to talk. And then it takes him the next fifty years to learn how to keep his mouth shut.

In 1935 a version with “girl baby” appeared in a Rayville, Louisiana newspaper: 10

It takes a girl baby approximately two years to learn how to talk and between sixty and seventy-five years to learn how to shut up.

In 1944 a columnist in a Birmingham, Alabama newspaper made an ambiguous attribution to Oliver Wendell Holmes. Senior died in 1894 and Junior died in 1935: 11

Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “It takes a baby approximately two years to learn to talk, and between 60 and 75 years to learn to keep his mouth shut.”

In 1968 a columnist in a Rochester, New York newspaper stated that she collected aphorisms, and she presented the following: 12

Some of my favorites are by Frederick B. Wilcox who was kind enough to share them with me.

“You can learn to talk in two years but it takes a lifetime to know when to keep silent.”

In 1989 advice columnist Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) employed the saying: 13

Strange how most people can learn to talk in two years, but it takes a lifetime to learn to keep quiet.

In 2008 the handle @betobeto tweeted a version with an improbable linkage to Ernest Hemingway: 14

“It takes two years to learn to talk, seven years to learn to think and sixty years to learn to shut up” – attributed to Hemingway

In 2010 twitter handle @CPuntayTacon ascribed a different instance to Hemingway: 15

Humans need two years to learn to speak and sixty years to learn to shut up. (Hemingway)

In 2012 twitter handle @JerryWittIII attributed an instance to Mark Twain: 16

It takes two years to learn to talk, and the rest of your life to control your mouth. – Mark Twain

In conclusion, this anonymous joke was circulating by 1909, and many variations have evolved over time. The column of Luke McLuke was an important popularizer of the quip beginning in 1915. The attributions to Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain are unsupported.

Image Notes: Silhouette of child and caregiver from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to J. Leslie Booth whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1909 October 13, The Wenatchee Daily World, A Diplomat Must Be Discreet, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wenatchee, Washington. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1913 March 29, St. Petersburg Daily Times (Tampa Bay Times), Seen On the Side, Quote Page 2, Column 4, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1913 December 24, The Detroit Free Press, Press Siftings, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1915 September 20, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bits of Byplay by Luke McLuke, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1915 September 22, The Elwood Call Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Elwood, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1915 September 24, The Macon Beacon, The Mystery of Silence, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Macon, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1917 March 2, The Wilmington Daily News, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Wilmington, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1917 March 21, The Atchison Daily Globe, City Items: Collection of News Paragraphs and Advertisements, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1920 October 8, Arkansas Democrat, Bits of Byplay by Luke McLuke, Quote Page 14, Column 2,Little Rock, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1935 December 14, The Richland Beacon-News, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 3, Rayville, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1944 June 22, The Birmingham News Good English by Mrs. J. N. Cornelius, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Birmingham, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1968 March 8, Democrat and Chronicle, Today’s Starter: Comfort for Confused Males by Deborah Walker, Quote Page 6B, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1989 November 13, Palladium-Item, Dear Abby: Reader says humbug to early Christmas by Abigail Van Buren, Quote Page A7, Column 6, Richmond, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  14. Tweet, From: Beto pero no Fernández @betobeto, Time: 5:25 PM, Date: June 26, 2008, Text: “It takes two years to learn to talk, seven years to learn to think and sixty years to learn to shut up” – attributed to Hemingway. (Accessed on twitter.com on September 25, 2019) link
  15. Tweet, From: Carmen Porcel @CPuntayTacon, Time: 6:21 PM, Date: April 16, 2010, Text: Humans need two years to learn to speak and sixty years to learn to shut up. (Hemingway). (Accessed on twitter.com on September 25, 2019) link
  16. Tweet, From: Jerry D. Witt III @JerryWittIII, Time: 12:51 PM, Date: May 27, 2012, Text: It takes two years to learn to talk, and the rest of your life to control your mouth. – Mark Twain. (Accessed on twitter.com on September 25, 2019) link