Wednesday, October 20, 2021

129: Silent as the Grave Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 129: Silent as the Grave

Record Date: October 10, 2021

Air Date: October 20, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

Today, I’m keeping quiet. Mum’s the word. You won’t get a peep outta me… 


Silent as the grave, or tomb, has several meanings today including 

An eerie silence or stillness

Absolute quiet

Keeping a secret 

Refusing to speak on an important topic

And similar

To get to the bones this one, we need to look at the two key words in this phrase, silent and grave. 

Grave has been in use in the English language for hundreds of years to refer generally to a burial place. 

Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition for grave is quote: 

A place of burial; an excavation in the earth for the reception of a corpse; †formerly often applied loosely to a receptacle for the dead not formed by digging, as a mausoleum.

-End quote 

The first listed usage dates back to around 1000 CE in a text titled Seafarer

It was around the late 1500’s that people started to use grave in various figurative and proverbial expressions to refer to death. It was also around this time that grave took on the meaning of something of importance or significance - something requiring deep thought, something weighty, and so on. 

The word silent has been in use in English since at least the early 1400s, possibly a little early. The word is a borrowing from Latin - English speakers adopted the word with basically the same meaning and pronunciation. 

It was also in the mid 1500s, when the word silent took on a new figurative sense. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in this sense for silent quote: 

Not mentioned; undisclosed, secret; unrecorded; marked by the absence of any record. Now spec. of a textual correction, omission, etc.: made without an explicit note or marker.

-End quote

In 1564 the following work was published after being quote, “Turned out of Frenche into Englishe, by John Stubbs”. The title of this piece is A discourse wrytten by M. Theodore de Beza, conteyning in briefe the historie of the life and death of Maister Iohn Caluin, with the testament and laste will of the saide Caluin, and the catalogue of his bookes that he hath made.

Normally I would say let’s just get to it, but I felt the history of this text actually has significance with how the word silent is used. Teodore de Bèze was a French Calvinist Protestant theologian, reformer and scholar who played an important role in the Protestant Reformation. He was a disciple of John Calvin and later succeeded him as a spiritual leader of the Republic of Geneva, which was originally founded by John Calvin. In the work, Bèze says quote,

“I ought not to keepe silent that which is true, and that I doe know.”

-End quote

This is a great example of figurative use. He wasn’t 100% quiet or not speaking - he was expressing that on these specific issues, he would not remain silent. He implies a sense of being duty-bound to reveal or divulge what he believed to be the truth on certain topics. 

Now that we have a little bit of a timeline for the two words, we’ll move to phrases.

In the Oxford English Dictionary under silent is the entry:

as silent as the grave and variants: with the meaning

refraining from or not making any sound; 

(of a person) discreet, secretive; 

(of a place) hushed, completely silent, esp. with an eerie or ominous atmosphere. 

1613 The work by Henry Austin titled The scourge of Venus: or the wanton lady contains the quote,

“As silent as the night they now do stand.”

1632 A dictionaire English and French; compiled for the commoditie of all such as are desirous of both the languages. By Robert Sherwood, Londoner

The English entry is for the word husht. The French entry includes three terms, the second and third being aime-silence and paix which translate to love-silence and peace

The first French term is difficult to decipher in the scan. Even guessing the letters I wasn’t able to find a match - it turns out that researching middle french as it was transitioning into modern french is not the easiest. It appears to be spelled H o n i s c h e. This could be the French form of the word husht (now hushed) or a provided pronunciation. One more possibility is that this word relates to a quietness related to shame or being ashamed. We’ll touch on that in the next entry. 

Following the terms are given two definitions. The first: 

To be husht (or silent) Avoir le bec gelé - Avoir le bec gelé has the direct English translation “to have a frozen beak” 

The second definition is:

Husht (or silent as the night.) Nuiteux 

I like the way silent as the night flows. It’s just a nice poetic phrase. 

The Rogue: Or, the Life of Guzman de Alfarache, Etc. was written by Mateo Alemán and James Mabbe and published in 1634 

There are two quotes I’ll share from this work. The first discusses the behavior change seen in one worker. Quote: 

Doest thou not see, how the world is now altered with our Carrier? He was now as silent as the night, not a word that comes from him. He laughs no more, but hangs down his head in his bosom, not daring for shame to lift it up.

  • End quote

This speaks to the concept of being silent out of shame and added some question to the dictionary definition we saw in that last excerpt. 

But in regards to our phrase today, here is the next bit from this book, The Rogue quote: 

But I will be silent and all shall be hush with me; for I will not (in these tongue-controlling dayes) that the law take hold upon me. Secreta mea mihi: My secret I will keepe to myselfe; I will locke it up close in mine owne bosome: besides, good and discreet silence is counted a holy thing… 

(Note: Secreta mea mihi translates as My secrets to me and is generally interpreted as My secrets are my own or I keep my secrets to myself. ) 

We’ve seen silent as the night. When does grave come into play?  

The first attestation is in a book from 1657 by Anthony Farindon titled XXX. sermons lately preached at … Saint Mary Magdalen Milkstreet, London. To which is annexed, A sermon preached at the funerall of Sir George Whitmore

Behold a man..dumb to all reproaches; and when injuries are loudest, as silent as the Grave, kissing the hand that strikes him.

The next piece will help highlight why grave was brought into the mix. Grave, representing death, is important, serious, permanent. 

We are reading from Seasonable Reflections and Discourses in Order to the Conviction, & Cure of the Scoffing, & Infidelity of a Degenerate Age by Joseph Glanvill · 1676 

Now that we’ve covered that dark unhappiness, let’s move forward to the next century. 

The 1751 work Ietro-Rhapsodia: or, a physical rhapsody by Ralph Schomberg contains this quote,

“So here all paus'd, and silent as the Tomb, 

Attend the Goddess to pronounce their Doom.”

-End quote 

I actually think that one is sort of lovely. 

This next one is fun! From the June 17, 1802 edition of the Alexandria advertiser and commercial intelligencer out of Alexandria, Virginia, there is a bit of a history slash politics topic being discussed. 

In The Portland gazette April 01, 1823 edition from Portland, Maine is this excerpt 

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 book The Master of Ballantrae there is a sentence that is so descriptive. I feel like Stevenson’s is just great at this. Quote:

We..lowered ourselves softly into a skiff, and left that ship behind us as silent as the grave.

-End quote 

Within that one statement’s span, I can place myself there. Imagining the stillness and quiet. 

In the New-York tribune’s February 09, 1919 edition, there is a script along with costume depictions. Here is one interaction between characters. 

Before we get to our modern uses… 

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

There have been a few songs using the phrase as their title including Silent as the Grave by the group The Becoming which was released in 2008. The third verse includes the lyrics 

The sound of our desire's killing

Us about as quiet as the grave 

This phrase is also alive and well in the book world. 

The book Silent as the Grave by Zoe Aarsen was published in 2020

McKenna’s mission to save her friends from their predicted deaths concludes in the third and final installment in the Light as a Feather series that is Riverdale meets The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina!

It’s not a game anymore…

McKenna has managed to rid Violet of the curse claiming the lives of so many in Willow, Wisconsin, but evil still plagues the town. McKenna’s friend Mischa now carries the curse, and when it comes for her family, she pledges revenge on those she deems responsible for their deaths...including McKenna and everyone she holds dear. 

I enjoyed the following two tweets as well. Very different vibes, but both interesting. 


The phrase is used in a hyperbolic manner often, certainly. But I appreciate that it does seem to have held on to its serious nature. It’s valuable to be able to share with depth and significance in our communication. That level of solemnity is sometimes rare. Phrases like silent as the grave can help express the impact something may have on a person with needing further explanation. And it is good to feel as though you’ve gotten your point across. It’s good to feel understood. 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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