Silence is golden

Meaning

A proverbial saying, often used in
circumstances where it is thought that
saying nothing is preferable to speaking.

Origin

As with many proverbs, the origin of this
phrase is obscured by the mists of time.
There are reports of versions of it dating
back to Ancient Egypt. The first example
of it in English is from the poet Thomas
Carlyle, who translated the phrase from
German in Sartor Resartus, 1831, in
which a character expounds at length on
the virtues of silence:

“Silence is the element in
which great things fashion
themselves together; that at
length they may emerge, full-
formed and majestic, into the
daylight of Life, which they
are thenceforth to rule. Not
William the Silent only, but all
the considerable men I have
known, and the most
undiplomatic and unstrategic
of these, forbore to babble of
what they were creating and
projecting. Nay, in thy own
mean perplexities, do thou
thyself but hold thy tongue
for one day: on the morrow,
how much clearer are thy
purposes and duties; what
wreck and rubbish have
those mute workmen within
thee swept away, when
intrusive noises were shut
out! Speech is too often not,
as the Frenchman defined it,
the art of concealing
Thought; but of quite stifling
and suspending Thought, so
that there is none to conceal.
Speech too is great, but not
the greatest. As the Swiss
Inscription says: Sprecfien ist
silbern, Schweigen ist golden
(Speech is silvern, Silence is
golden); or as I might rather
express it: Speech is of Time,
Silence is of Eternity.”

That fuller version – ‘speech is silver;
silence is golden’, is still sometimes used,
although the shorter form is now more
common.

The same thought is expressed in a 16th
century proverb, now defunct – as many
present-day feminists would prefer it:

“Silence is a woman’s best
garment.”

Silence has in fact long been considered
laudable in religious circles. The 14th
century author Richard Rolle of Hampole,
in The psalter; or psalms of David, 1340:

“Disciplyne of silence is goed.”

Wyclif’s Bible, 1382 also includes the
thought – “Silence is maad in heuen”.
[made in Heaven].

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