June 2018

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?

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?

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.


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 QIoccurred 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.

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

(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 QI17

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.


  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) ↩

Source: Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt – Quote Investigator

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Turner’s Creed – by Steve Turner

We believe everything is OK

as long as you don’t hurt anyone

to the best of your definition of hurt,

and to the best of your knowledge.

We believe in sex before, during, and

after marriage.

We believe in the therapy of sin.

We believe that adultery is fun.

We believe that sodomy’s OK.

We believe that taboos are taboo.

We believe that everything’s getting better

despite evidence to the contrary.

The evidence must be investigated

And you can prove anything with evidence.

We believe there’s something in horoscopes

UFO’s and bent spoons.

Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,

Mohammed, and ourselves.

He was a good moral teacher though we think

His good morals were bad.

We believe that all religions are basically the same-

at least the one that we read was.

They all believe in love and goodness.

They only differ on matters of creation,

sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

We believe that after death comes the Nothing

Because when you ask the dead what happens

they say nothing.

If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its

compulsory heaven for all

excepting perhaps

Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn

We believe in Masters and Johnson

What’s selected is average.

What’s average is normal.

What’s normal is good.

We believe in total disarmament.

We believe there are direct links between warfare and


Americans should beat their guns into tractors .

And the Russians would be sure to follow.

We believe that man is essentially good.

It’s only his behavior that lets him down.

This is the fault of society.

Society is the fault of conditions.

Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that

is right for him.

Reality will adapt accordingly.

The universe will readjust.

History will alter.

We believe that there is no absolute truth

excepting the truth

that there is no absolute truth.

We believe in the rejection of creeds,

And the flowering of individual thought.

If chance be

the Father of all flesh,

disaster is his rainbow in the sky

and when you hear

State of Emergency!

Sniper Kills Ten!

Troops on Rampage!

Whites go Looting!

Bomb Blasts School!

It is but the sound of man

worshipping his maker.

Source: Turner’s Creed – by Steve Turner | A Puritan’s Mind

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The Prisoner by Emily Bronte

A fragment.

In the dungeon-crypts idly did I stray,
Reckless of the lives wasting there away;
“Draw the ponderous bars! open, Warder stern!”
He dared not say me nay–the hinges harshly turn.

“Our guests are darkly lodged,” I whisper’d, gazing through
The vault, whose grated eye showed heaven more gray than blue;
(This was when glad Spring laughed in awaking pride;)
“Ay, darkly lodged enough!” returned my sullen guide.

Then, God forgive my youth; forgive my careless tongue;
I scoffed, as the chill chains on the damp flagstones rung:
“Confined in triple walls, art thou so much to fear,
That we must bind thee down and clench thy fetters here?”

The captive raised her face; it was as soft and mild
As sculptured marble saint, or slumbering unwean’d child;
It was so soft and mild, it was so sweet and fair,
Pain could not trace a line, nor grief a shadow there!

The captive raised her hand and pressed it to her brow;
“I have been struck,” she said, “and I am suffering now;
Yet these are little worth, your bolts and irons strong;
And, were they forged in steel, they could not hold me long.”

Hoarse laughed the jailor grim: “Shall I be won to hear;
Dost think, fond, dreaming wretch, that I shall grant thy prayer?
Or, better still, wilt melt my master’s heart with groans?
Ah! sooner might the sun thaw down these granite stones.

“My master’s voice is low, his aspect bland and kind,
But hard as hardest flint the soul that lurks behind;
And I am rough and rude, yet not more rough to see
Than is the hidden ghost that has its home in me.”

About her lips there played a smile of almost scorn,
“My friend,” she gently said, “you have not heard me mourn;
When you my kindred’s lives, MY lost life, can restore,
Then may I weep and sue,–but never, friend, before!

“Still, let my tyrants know, I am not doomed to wear
Year after year in gloom, and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers for short life, eternal liberty.

“He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars.
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.

“Desire for nothing known in my maturer years,
When Joy grew mad with awe, at counting future tears.
When, if my spirit’s sky was full of flashes warm,
I knew not whence they came, from sun or thunder-storm.

“But, first, a hush of peace–a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast–unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free–its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulph, it stoops and dares the final bound,

“Oh I dreadful is the check–intense the agony–
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

“Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine!”

She ceased to speak, and we, unanswering, turned to go–
We had no further power to work the captive woe:
Her cheek, her gleaming eye, declared that man had given
A sentence, unapproved, and overruled by Heaven.

Source: The Prisoner by Emily Bronte

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Harlem Renaissance – The Queen’s Poems

Source: Harlem Renaissance – The Queen’s Poems

Hey Black Child
Do you know who you are
Who you really are
Do you know you can be
What you want to be
If you try to be
What you can be

Hey Black Child
Do you know where you are going
Where you’re really going
Do you know you can learn
What you want to learn
If you try to learn
What you can learn

Hey Black Child
Do you know you are strong
I mean really strong
Do you know you can do
What you want to do
If you try to do
What you can do

Hey Black Child
Be what you can be
Learn what you must learn
Do what you can do
And tomorrow your nation
Will be what you what it to be

Harlem Renaissance – The Queen’s Poems Read More »

In No Strange Land

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

Source: Poem of the week: In No Strange Land by Francis Thompson | Books | The Guardian

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A Soldier’s Prayer

(found on the body of an American Soldier during World War I)

Lord God, I have never spoken to you,
but now I want to say how do you do?

You see God they told me you didn’t exist,
and like a fool I believed all this.

Last night from a shell hole I saw your sky,
I figured right then they had told me a lie.

Had I take time to see the things you made,
I would have known they weren’t calling a spade a spade.

I wonder God if you’ll take my hand,
somehow I feel that you’ll understand.

Funny how I had come to this hellish place,
before I had time to see your face.

I guess there really isn’t much more to say,
but I’m sure glad God that I met you today.

I guess zero hour will soon be here,
But I’m not afraid since I know you’re near.

The signal, well God I’ll have to go,
I like you lots, I want you to know.

Look now this will be a horrible fight,
who knows I may come to your house tonight.

Though I wasn’t friendly to you before,
I wonder God if you’d wait at your door.

Look I’m crying, I’m shedding tears,
I’ll have to go now, God, goodbye.

Strange now since I met you,
I’m not afraid to die.

Author Unknown



Click to access A_Soldiers_Prayer.pdf

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