Mum’s the word
Don’t tell anyone but I’m going to reveal the origin of the phrase mum’s the word which we use to exhort someone to silence and secrecy. The first thing to get straight is that the reference to mum has nothing to do with your maternal ancestor. Your mother isn’t being used as a code word for keeping quiet.
Rather mum is a hangover from the Middle English word mum which meant silence and once we realise that the meaning of our phrase becomes crystal clear. Some have attempted to derive mum from the noise mmm which we make when we try to speak through a closed mouth but this seems a bit far-fetched when there is a similar word in Old High German, stum, which is suggestive of a common ancestry. In more modern German the word became stumm and itself became the origin for the phrase keep schtum, which didn’t appear in print until 1958 as shtoom.
Another myth to dispel is that our mum shares the same root with mummer, a type of play which has been popular in Britain since at least mediaeval times. These plays were broadly comedic in nature and the action focused around the death and resurrection of a principal character – you can readily see the analogy to the Christian gospel. The characters were stereotypical, one representing good – Saint George – and the other evil – a Turkish knight or rogue soldier. Relatively few mummers groups remain today, their traditions being kept alive by Morris and sword dancing groups.
What the mummers’ plays were not were mimes, although no actual scripts are extant, and were likely to be raucous and lively affairs with, probably, a high degree of what we would term today audience participation. Once the mummers’ performance was over the hat was passed around. It could be quite lucrative work, some reports suggesting that three days’ performances would raise the equivalent of a month’s wages for a player.
Mummer is derived from the Early New High German verb, mummer, meaning a disguised person, a clear reference to the tradition of the mummers wearing costume and sometimes masks or hats which shrouded their faces. Another verb sharing the same root is vermummer which means to wrap up or to mask or disguise your face.
The first appearance of the word mum as silence in literature is fairly early, around 1376, in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, “Thou mightiest better meten the myst on Malvern hylls/ than geten a mom of heore mouth til moneye weore schewed”, which translates as “you may as well measure the mists on Malvern hills as to try and get her to speak until you offer her payment”.
It was not until 1540 and John Palgrave’s translation of The Comedye of Acolastus that we come across a variant of our phrase, “I dare not to do so moche as put my hande to my mouthe, and say mum, is counseyle”. The Bard of Stratford used mum to denote silence in Henry VI, Part 2 published in 1592, “Seal up your lips and give no words but mum”. The first instance of the use of the phrase mum’s the word to caution someone to keep silent appeared in A Walk Around London and Westminster, published in 1720, “But Mum’s the word – for who would speak their mind amongst Tarrs and commissioners”.
But keep that under your hat!