Q. "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." I have seen this quote many times. In just the past few days I have heard it attributed to both Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Who really first coined it? -- Sylvia Hammitt, of Belleville
A. Considering how debated the origin of this popular piece of advice is, I might be wise to heed it here myself. Unfortunately, I suppose Answer Men aren't allowed such a luxury, so, after an hour of intense research, this is my best educated opinion: Maurice Switzer.
Didn't see that one coming, did you? As you likely know, if you do a quick online search, you'll find that maybe 80 percent of your run-of-the-mill websites will cite Abraham Lincoln. Clemens/Twain seems to run a distant second.
But as Toastmasters International warns, careless Internet hunts frequently lead speakers to violate the very proverb about which you are asking.
"If you rely on the Internet or the popular word-of-mouth knowledge you vaguely remember, then you will end up attributing almost all quotations to a few people (including Lincoln, Twain, Franklin, Churchill and Einstein)," the group advises at www.toastmasters.org.
"These individuals are 'quote magnets' -- any quotation with a questionable origin gets attached to their names. Attributing a saying to Mark Twain without confirming it makes a 'hollow place' in your speech, because what you are really doing is confessing that you have no idea where this came from ..."
And which quote do they use as their first example? You guessed it -- this very quotation. While it's frequently attributed to ol' Abe, the honest truth is that it has not be found in any of his writings, speeches or contemporary accounts. It's the same story for Twain. Maybe that's why you won't find it in one of my favorite books, "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations."
Instead, I turned to Garson O'Toole, the Quote Investigator (QI). Boasting a Yale doctorate, he spends untold hours investigating quotes with hazy origins and then publishing his findings at length on his website, quoteinvestigator.com. As usual, he is certainly not silent on your question.
Whoever did first say it possibly had a working knowledge of the Bible, O'Toole suggests. You'll find what looks to be the quote's rudimentary beginnings in Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive." (New King James)
Then, about a century ago, people began attributing the current pithy but humorous version to Lincoln. According to the Yale Book of Quotations, the first such reference came in a 1931 issue of Golden Book magazine. But as O'Toole notes, Lincoln died in 1865, so for it to take 66 years for the connection to be made is suspicious -- not to mention that the quote without a Lincoln attribution was in use years earlier, according to the same Yale quote book. Similar efforts to pin it on Twain and Samuel Johnson also have fallen flat.
That led O'Toole to a book you've likely never heard of: "Mrs. Goose, Her Book" by Maurice Switzer with a 1906 copyright date. Filled mostly with clever nonsense verse, Switzer wrote, "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 appears to be original, and it is possible that the saying was crafted by Maurice Switzer," O'Toole writes. "QI believes that the strongest attribution is to Maurice Switzer."
Also worth noting: Switzer perhaps cleverly took the title of his work from the wildly popular 1899 book "Father Goose, His Book" -- written by L. Frank Baum, who would go on to write the even more beloved "Wizard of Oz" series.
And you might be interested in reading O'Toole's similar scholarly report on "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," in which he casts doubt on the usual suspects -- Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and John F. Kennedy.
Barack Obama delivered his inaugural speech Monday in a tidy 18 minutes. Who gave the longest such speech?
Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Obama took his inaugural oath privately on Sunday to meet the constitutional mandate -- but that hasn't always been the case. The first two presidents whose inauguration days fell on Sunday -- James Monroe (1821) and Zachary Taylor (1849) -- waited until the public ceremony on Monday. Since they usually wait until noon instead of midnight, what's another 24 hours, Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned.
In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes took his oath privately -- but on Saturday. It wasn't until March 4, 1917, that Woodrow Wilson became the first president to be sworn in during private Sunday ceremonies. It started a tradition that has since included Dwight Eisenhower (1957), Ronald Reagan (1985) and Obama.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org