This week in Say What?, we consider the issue of speaking out - or not. Since ancient times, people have waxed philosophical about the issue of unnecessary utterances, and indeed, sometimes speaking up was thought to be quite dangerous!
With examples from the Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones
Silence Is Golden
The implication of this classic saying is that it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut:
Chrestomanci ran his finger down the list of demons’ names. How many of them, he wondered, might actually be partisans of the Dright? Abruptly he realized that his son had been speaking to him for quite some time: “ … and then Klartch ate the leg of lamb that was going to be for dinner, and Cat said he couldn’t be blamed, and -“
Really, dinner was not quite in the same category as demons. “Roger,” said Chrestomanci calmly, “Please remember that silence is golden.”
Of course, even the most silence-loving philosopher - or extremely powerful enchanter - would have to admit that there are times when it makes more sense to speak out:
The soothing quiet of the office was being interrupted yet again. This time, it was his daughter.
“Julia,” Chrestomanci said calmly, “You ought to remember that silence is golden.”
“I don’t think so," retorted Julia. “Not when Roger and Cat have turned into newts.”
In fact, the proverb as cited here - and most places - is incomplete. The full version, as it appeared in English in Thomas Carlyle’s novel Sartor Resartus (1836), is Speech is silvern, Silence is golden. Both are valid currency, however, in the right circumstances - as Julia has pointed out to her father.
Why is silence considered more valuable than speech? It probably has to do with the idea that foolish or harmful words can be worse than no words at all. The value of silence over speech is a concept that often shows up in religious thought. “My entire life I grew up among wise men, and I never found anything as good for a person as silence,” said one Jewish scholar, 2000 years ago. A frequently quoted Buddhist proverb says, “Do not speak unless you are sure you can improve on silence.” Of course, there's also the idea that silence can be a restorative retreat from the demands and bustle of most people's lives, as well as an aid to the contemplation of either mundane topics (as in a library) or the divine (as in some religious communities).
Given that Chrestomanci Castle is not only the great enchanter's home and his place of business but also serves essentially as a boarding school for a number of magically talented youngsters, it's no wonder that Chrestomanci looks forward to a bit of quiet contemplation in his office.
Talk (or Speak) of the Devil
(and He Will Appear)
This proverb is far more specific than Silence Is Golden. Now we don’t have to worry about what the harm of speaking could be because the saying tells us explicitly:
“All right,” said Roger, when he’d finished his spell. “It’s fixed. Do you think anyone would be able to tell that it was cracked right in half?”
Cat admired the repaired urn. “No. It’s perfect. Not even Chrestomanci would notice.”
“Notice what?” asked Chrestomanci, appearing in the doorway of the drawing room. “Oh, dear. What on earth have you two done to that urn?”
Roger scowled. “Speak of the devil,” said Cat, before he could stop himself.
“And he will appear,” finished Chrestomanci. “You know that was an incredibly rude thing to say, don’t you?”
As Cat demonstrates, people don’t always bother with the complete expression. Usually, this saying merely remarks on a coincidence: you talk about someone or something, and immediately afterward, you encounter what you’ve mentioned. In times past, however, this proverb did hold out the possibility that the mere mention of a symbol of misfortune could bring trouble - perhaps even an actual appearance by Old Scratch - for the speaker. A less superstitious interpretation of the saying is that you should always be careful of what you’re saying about someone else because you never know who’s listening.
The devil - Christian symbol of evil - was not the only being to be invoked to get this point across. French and Russian parallels to the expression are less supernatural: “Speak of the wolf, and you’ll see his tail” or “Speak of the wolf, and he’ll be at your door.” (No, this doesn’t literally mean that a specimen of Canis lupus will show up!) The Chinese equivalent is even more grounded in reality: the many far-reaching military campaigns of the famous general Cao Cao (155-220 C.E.) are recalled in the saying “Speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao appears.”
Of course, in Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy series, evildoers have concrete reason to worry because mentioning Chrestomanci really can bring him to the scene, magically! Did Cat actually summon his guardian to the drawing room in the example just given? Only Chrestomanci knows for sure!
- SIlence is golden (The Phrase Finder)
- Re: Silence is golden/Part 2 (bulletin board, The Phrase Finder)
- Right Speech - Piyadassi Mahathera (cited on BuddhaSasana)
- Parshas Behaaloscha: Is Silence Golden? (Torah.org)
- Speak of the devil (The Phrase Finder)
- Chinese archaeologists 'discover' tomb of notorious pantomime villain Cao Cao (The Guardian, December 27, 2009)
- Joke (Re: Speak of the Devil) (bulletin board, The Phrase Finder)