The Grammarphobia Blog

Speaking with a forked tongue

Q: What is the origin of “to speak with a forked tongue”? Does the expression come from the snake that tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit?

A: The expression was probably inspired by the forked tongue of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. One of the earliest examples of the phrase “forked tongue” in the deceptive sense alludes to the passage in Genesis.

The image of a forked tongue has been used figuratively in English for hundreds of years to mean an intent to deceive. The earliest recorded example we’ve seen is from Magnificence, a morality play written around 1516 by the English poet John Skelton:

“Paint to a purpose good countenance I can, / And craftily can I grope how every man is minded; / My purpose is to spy and point every man; / My tongue is with favel [cunning] forked and tyned. / By Cloaked Collusion thus many one is beguiled.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “forked tongue” used this way suggests a serpentine origin, though not necessarily from the serpent in Genesis that tempts Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Here’s the passage from Poetasters, a 1601 comedy by Ben Jonson about versifiers who ape true poets:

“Are there no players here? no poet apes, / That come with basilisk’s eyes, whose forked tongues / Are steeped in venom, as their hearts in gall?” (A basilisk is a mythical serpent that can kill with a single glance.)

When Lancelot Andrewes, an Anglican bishop, used the phrase a few years later, he was clearly alluding to the forked tongue of the deceptive serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Andrewes, who may be best known for overseeing the King James Version of the Bible, used “forked tongue” twice in a June 8, 1606, sermon in Greenwich before King James I. Here’s one that mentions “in the beginning,” an allusion to Genesis:

“And so, the Devill hath his tongues. And he hath the art of cleaving. He shewed it in the beginning, when he made the Serpent, lingnam bisulcam, a forked tongue, to speake that, which was contrary to his knowledge and meaning.”

The full expression “to speak with a forked tongue” showed up in American English in the 19th century, according to our searches of digital archives.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a March 23, 1829, letter by President Andrew Jackson addressed “To the Creek Indians”:

“You know I love my white and red children, and always speak straight, and not with a forked tongue; that I have always told you the truth.”

The letter, which urged the Creeks to move West, was part of  a plan by Jackson to move all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma. Defiant Creeks were driven out of Alabama and Georgia in the Creek War of 1836.

Several language references suggest that “to speak with a forked tongue” is derived from expressions in American Indian languages.

However, we haven’t seen any written evidence from the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries that Native Americans were using the full expression, either in English or in a native language.

Indians did apparently use the phrase “forked tongue” to mean deception as far back as the 1700s, but they could have picked up the term from English speakers, perhaps traders or missionaries relating the passage about Eve and the serpent in Genesis.

James Adair, an English trader and writer who lived among Native Americans in the Southeast in the mid-1700s, quotes a Chickasaw chief as using the phrase.

In this passage from The History of the American Indians, Adair’s 1775 account of Indian life, the Chickasaw tells a Muskogee emissary that without the help of the English, the French would set the Muskogee against one another, as they did with the Choctaw.

“Only for their brotherly help, the artful and covetous French, by the weight of presents and the skill of their forked tongues, would before now, have set you to war against each other, in the very same manner they have done by the Choktah.”

As for the Native American use of the full expression, the earliest example we’ve seen is fictional.

In “God and the Pagan,” a short story by W. A. Fraser in the July 1898 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a Blackfoot medicine man warns his people about a “paleface prophet who speaks with the forked tongue”—a priest seeking the release of a woman carried off in a raid.

When an actual American Indian is described in writing as using the expression in a native tongue, the translation is often questionable.

In Black Elk Speaks (1932), for example, John G. Neihardt puts these words into the mouth of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man:

“But could we believe anything the Wasichus ever said to us? They spoke with forked tongues.” (Wašícu is a word in Lakota and Dakota Sioux for people of European descent.)

However, we question the authenticity of a book by an American poet who didn’t speak Sioux about a Sioux who didn’t speak English. (Although Neihardt was helped by Black Elk’s son, scholars say he took many liberties with the translation.)

In “Black Elk Speaks With Forked Tongue,” a 1989 study, G. Thomas Couser writes: “we see Black Elk not face to face, but through the gloss of a white man—a translation whose surface obscures Black Elk by reflecting the culture of his collaborator.”

(The study appeared as a chapter in Couser’s 1989 book Altered Egos: Authority in American Biography. An earlier version appeared in Studies in Autobiography, a 1988 collection edited by James Olney.)

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