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What does it mean for someone to be "speaking with a forked tongue"? I've heard it used by my boss when referring to particular customers of ours.

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Snakes have their olfactory receptors located on their tongue and have developed forked tongues in order to detect tiny odor variations, which allow them to detect the origin of smells and track down their preys. Please have a look at the wikipedia "forked tongue" entry for more. We French were apparently the first to deserve being branded "forked tongues" by the Native Americans ;-) –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 23 '11 at 10:30
Are you implying my boss thinks our customers smell with their tongues? –  Urbycoz Jun 23 '11 at 10:50
not exactly. I just provided one part of the answer to complement the already correct proposed answers. Other complements are that snakes (as spiders) generate innate feelings of disgust and (sometimes uncontrollable) fear in many mammals and in most primates. Hence their bad reputation (see for instance the book of genesis and many other myths); see also the etymology of such English words as slimy or sneaky. Also, the parallel between the physical characteristics of the tongue and the propensity to tell lies is very common in many cultures. But the original phrase is Indian –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 23 '11 at 16:48

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This expression did not originate with television. It has a much longer history, dating possibly to the 17th century. From Wikipedia:

The phrase "speaks with a forked tongue" means to say one thing and mean another or, to be hypocritical, or act in a duplicitous manner. In the longstanding tradition of many Native American tribes, "speaking with a forked tongue" has meant lying, and a person was no longer considered worthy of trust, once he had been shown to "speak with a forked tongue". This phrase was also adopted by Americans around the time of the Revolution, and may be found in abundant references from the early 19th century — often reporting on American officers who sought to convince the tribal leaders with whom they negotiated that they "spoke with a straight and not with a forked tongue" (as for example, President Andrew Jackson told the Creek Nation in 1829[16]) According to one 1859 account, the native proverb that the "white man spoke with a forked tongue" originated as a result of the French tactic of the 1690s, in their war with the Iroquois, of inviting their enemies to attend a Peace Conference, only to be slaughtered or captured.[17]

As you can see, Andrew Jackson used the expression in 1829, which was well before television and even radio.

This Google NGram supports the contention that the phrase has existed for a long, long time:

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To be honest, with a little effort, I'm almost certain one would be able to find references to at least one very similar phrase within the KJV Bible, too. Maybe even in the first book, Genesis, with the serpent and all. –  Grant Thomas Jun 23 '11 at 11:18
I wondered if it might be tied in to the Bible? –  Urbycoz Jun 24 '11 at 14:04

This is a reference to an expression used by American Indian characters in old Western movies and TV series, notably The Lone Ranger.

I've no idea if it's any more than an invention of Hollywood, but it is supposed to be an expression used by the Indians to means that someone is speaking words that can't be trusted. The analogy is with a snake — whose words obviously couldn't be trusted.

The context is usually "White Man speak with forked tongue!"

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merriam-webster.com/dictionary/forked+tongue list it as of 1833 –  Unreason Jun 23 '11 at 8:50
If a snake spoke to me, I'd trust him! :-) I would suggest the "forked" reference is more about duplicity than exhibiting snake-like behaviour. Similar to a "fork" in a road, which goes two ways, saying one thing and meaning something else could be exhibiting "forked-tongue behaviour". It probably doesn't help that after the phrase is coined, snakes are then implied to be untrustworthy because they do have forked tongues (in addition to their slithering/sneaking natures), making them seem to be a physical match to the aphorism. –  Pavling Jun 23 '11 at 11:20
Yes, this makes sense. As Tonto would say: "White man say one thing, but mean another". Basically "White man lies!" –  pavium Jun 23 '11 at 11:25
Much of that Hollywood Injun talk is actually derived from a real North American aboriginal English pidgin that extended back to the first English colonial settlements here, and except for the fact that the Hollywood version seems to have gained gender differentiation in personal pronouns (there were no "she" or "her" in the real pidgin), it's pretty faithful to the existing recorded examples. That's not entirely surprising, since mass (forced) acculturation didn't begin until the end of the nineteenth century, so elements of the pidgin were still on the ground when talkies came around. –  bye Jun 23 '11 at 22:09

It means that someone is lying. I always pictured it as a split tongue - one side says one thing and the other another.

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