Before I begin, I need to make clear that I am a full-on total failure on this topic. No ifs, ands, or buts, I struggle with controlling my thoughts and fight continuously to curb my tongue. My intent is to help be a road sign of what traps to avoid, for maybe I can then learn to improve. As a soldier, I struggled but appeared to master my spoken words for a time. But controlling thoughts, especially those where I want to fight, kick, and scream, remains a challenge. As a sailor, forget about it; I even learned new language and taught how to swear more effectively. Oi, I do need to change this aspect of me! I am reminded of the words from an anonymous author:
“Of thine unspoken word thou art master; thy spoken word is master of thee.”
Of all the truths most evident in today’s culture, none compares to this simple truth speak, and your words become your master. In the New Testament, Gospel of Matthew, 26:73, the reader finds the following:
“Thy speech betrayeth thee…”
While said to identify a Galilean, the sentiment remains particularly powerful; consider the axiom “swearing like a sailor.” As a child, when a person broke out in a rainbow-colored diatribe, people automatically assumed the speaker had been or was currently a sailor. I respected several people who constantly swore as they were tough, rugged, and individualistic. When I used those exact words, I wound up eating a lot of soap! Indeed, your speech betrays who you are, your intelligence, and your willingness to conform to a societal communication standard.
Speaking of my childhood, I was raised in a home by hippies, but we had three rules we were obliged to follow:
- Thou shalt use the King’s English.
- Thou shalt properly pronounce and annunciate your words.
- Thou shalt not use any word if you do not know the meaning of that term and can find it in the dictionary.
The dictionary of my youth was not full and complete, and I have long since learned that there are many dictionaries in existence. That being said, there are ways, mannerisms, and styles of speaking that our constant moving introduced us to; having now traveled ¾’s of the way around the globe, and having met thousands upon thousands of people, the rules of social etiquette where speech is concerned remain powerfully appropriate. Each society has its communication standards, requirements, and even specialized language. With that said, general society also has its own rules, styles, and conditions that, when in public, should be respected.
For example, I had spoken to people who chose to be offended when a man spoke harshly, or with colorful language, in front of children or to a female. I mistakenly dropped a colorful rant in front of some elderly people who were strong enough of character to issue a verbal harangue to me for breaching social etiquette. How grateful I am for their remonstrations. The words of Solomon come to mind:
“The tongue of the wise is in his heart; the heart of the fool is in his mouth.”
It never surprises me how often this flash from the eternal semaphore is being communicated to the world, “Hold thy tongue” for “Thy speech betrayeth thee!” All through the history of man, many a philosopher, author, speaker, and leader has uttered words to be careful how and what you say, for “Thy speech betrayeth thee.” One of my favorite from this category is Halifax, who is quoted as saying:
“True merit is like a river; the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.”
It was my very great displeasure to work for a person in the US Navy who was a fool. No merit, no redeeming grace, lazy, obnoxious, and he had risen to the maximum level of his incompetence as a Fireman (E3), and his current rank was Second-Class Petty Officer (E-5). This person could not be trusted to complete any work but talked a good game; the department chief pulled me aside and told me on my first day, “He talks a good game.” The chief meant this dude was full of BS, but the chief also highly favored this person, and it was my fault I spoke better and less. Hence, I was to be punished with every dirty job, horrible detail, and tedious task until this twit left the ship. Truly, every time he opened his mouth, his ignorance was displayed for the world to see, and I often swore his jaw was double-hung to allow him to blather tediously 24/7. Even sleeping, this guy’s ignorance was displayed heroically.
I do not know the author, but the following is spot-on:
“Look out for your tongue; it resides in a wet place and may slip.”
“You can tell the kind of wheels a man has in his head by the spokes that come out of his mouth.”
Elbert Hubbard is the author of the best one; it has been quoted to me numerous times. “After all, perhaps it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” The last three quotes strongly introduce a truth, knowledge is a check on the tongue. Knowledge is a composite of education (formal and informal), time, and reflection after experiences. The idea of knowledge is to allow yourself the time to fail into wisdom, to reflect on better paths, and spend time discovering how to improve using the formal and informal education received. There are certainly times when I think I have failed enough; I have sufficiently reflected and obtained the education, when do I obtain the knowledge? These moments serve to pop my ever capacious ego!
Jeremy Taylor provides counsel on the power of knowledge worthy of consideration:
“Great knowledge, if it be without vanity, is the most severe bridle of the tongue. For I have heard all the noise and pratings of the pool, the croakings of frogs and toads, are hushed and appeased when the light of a candle or a torch is brought upon them. Every beam of reason and every ray of knowledge checks the dissolution of the tongue.”
Since knowledge has been defined, knowledge without vanity, let’s review vanity. I kick against a lot of pricks. I hate bullies, liars, and despise thieves with the passion equivalent to a thousand suns. Yet, vanity provides an interesting lesson; excessive pride, conceit, worthlessness, pointlessness, or futility describe vanity. Superiority is synonymous with vanity. While I do not feel superior to anyone, I have been counseled to stop showing superiority many times. I am not vane in my appearance, and I am not conceited (possessing fanciful ideas of oneself worth); I would think vanity is part of my problem in curbing my tongue—knowledge without vanity, a worthwhile subject to study.
Bringing up an interesting point; in fact, it was a question I asked a supervisor in the US Navy. If I possess a lot of knowledge from reading and learning, is it vanity (or superiority) to readily use that knowledge? My bosses told me I was narcissistic for possessing all this knowledge and wanting to share it; I pointedly disagreed. Yet, even when dropping foul deprecations, my speech still betrayed me, and I was considered a fool for “casting my pearls before swine.” Leo J. Muir was given fatherly advice through his older brother:
“Keep your feet warm; your head cool; your mouth shut; your eyes open, and you will get along all right.”
What wonderful advice; I wish, like anything, I could apply that last bit about keeping my mouth shut. I answer when someone asks a question, even when I shouldn’t. I tend to start conversations, especially when I should not. I am so excited to share; I even talk to myself and about myself in the third person, just to speak. I wonder if this reflects what Homer was talking about:
“The smaller the caliber of mind, the greater the bore of a perpetually open mouth.”
Since moving to an employment situation where I work from home, I have learned the truth of this old rhyme:
“A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Now wasn’t that a wise old bird?”
Often I have asked, how do I live more like this wise old bird? The answers elude me. Yet, knowledge is power, the power to act, think, and speak. But, knowledge is not authority and authority is the key to understanding when and where to speak. On my first day in the US Army, I made this mistake on a grand scale; you would think I would have learned over time, or at least over a couple of hundred push-ups. You would be mistaken, though; I did not learn what I should have learned long before my first day in the US Army. I met some incredible people while pushing Fort Leonardwood to China, but that’s a story for a different venue.
In Christendom, there is a story, true or not; it relays a truth. As Jesus was about to bestow speech upon a man mute from birth, it is related that the Savior of the world stopped for a moment, cast his eyes heavenward, and paused in contemplative thought. Considering how great a power He was about to bestow upon a person. The ability to get into and out of trouble using speech, a faculty of passion, power, and peril; indeed, the Master might hesitate, and so should we. In reading and watching the unfolding drama in Ukraine, I am often caught thinking about the peril in speaking, especially when President Biden opens his mouth. Socrates was right, “Know thyself!” kingly counsel indeed.
Interestingly, and in conclusion, there is one more power-filled truth to expound upon, the words uttered represent the heart. When “Thy speech betrayeth thee,” the words uttered represent the heart displayed for good or ill. Of all the truths discussed, this one brings me to pause before discussing further. Long have I prayed for a change of heart, for a line from Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” rings forever in my mind:
“The soil of a man’s heart is stony ground. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause, what you buy is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.”
I have tended some bitter fruit because that was all the stony ground my heart would grow. I own that bitter fruit, and bitter fruit comes home, generally because I opened my mouth. Surely, “Thy speech betrayeth thee.” May you, dear reader, find wisdom in my sign and learn better, so you may teach more perfectly.
© Copyright 2022 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.