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.

  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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

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:

enter image description here

  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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!"

  • 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
  • 1
    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.


Though "speaking with a forked tongue" may be popularly associated with the speech of American Indians in TV and film westerns, the association of forked tongues with lying speech goes far back in English literature, no doubt influenced by the biblical association of the fork-tongued Serpent with the Father of Lies.

Consider Lancelot Andrewes, "Of the Sending of the Holy Ghost," in XCVI. Sermons by the Right Honourable and Reverend Father in God Lancelot Andrewes, Second Edition (1632):

The tongue is the substantive, and subject of all the rest. It is so: And GOD can send from Heaven no better thing; nor the Devill from hell no worse thing, than it. The best member, we have (saith the Prophet;) The worst member, we have (saith the Apostle:) Both, as it is employed.

The best, if it be of GOD s cleaving; if it be of His lightning with the fire of Heaven; if it be one that will sit still, if cause be. The worst, if it come from the Devils hands. For, he, as in many other, so in the sending of tongues, striveth to be like GOD; as knowing wlll, they are every way as fit instruments, to worke mischiefe by as to doe good with. There be tongues of Angels (in I Cor. 13.1) and if of good Angels, I make no doubt but of evill; 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, They should not die; and as hee did the Serpents, so hee can doe others.

Both Ben Jonson, in The Masque of Queens (1609) and John Milton, in Paradise Lost (1667) take note of the forked tongue in their representation of deceitful or damned beings. In a slight variant on this theme, in The Whores Rhetorick (1683), a character named Madam Creswel finds the serpent's forked tongue responsible not for outright deception but for "poysonous humours":

Madam Creswel. It was diverting to perceive the heedless (though attentive) Sheep led astray by this seducing Shepherd, and the unwary Animals intoxicated by the poysonous humours inspired from this Serpents forked Tongue.

Likewise, from Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A., "A Narrative of the Revival of Religion, in the County of Oneida" (1826):

It is evidently the work of some enemy to Presbyterians, and to religion. It is written with considerable art; but the serpent shows his forked tongue, in the language he occasionally utters.

And from Lewis Condict, "Address, Delivered by Appointment at Morristown, New-Jersey" (July 4, 1828):

The demon of discord and of party violence, should no be suffered to pollute freedom's offering, nor to profane her festive day. His cloven foot should not tread these sacred courts, nor his forked tongue utter its discordant note within these walls. His admission is but an ill omen to those high hopes—those cheering prospects, which animated the bosoms of our fathers and sustained them in the perilous contest.

All of these occurrences precede the famous instance in which U.S. President Andrew Jackson addressed the Choctaw Indians and offered them assurances that he did not speak with a forked tongue. (For a disturbing and surprisingly impartial contemporaneous account of what prompted those assurances and how they played out, see the March 1830 and August 1830 issues of The Missionary Herald.)

  • You're going to have to write a book one day putting together all your findings. Title: Seventy Yargs beneath the English Aphorism etc; (whatever). When you do, drop me a note! – Mari-Lou A Oct 31 '14 at 8:09

James 1:8
Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Ye double minded; the persons addressed are not the profane men of the world, but sinners in Zion, formal professors, hypocritical persons; who speak with a double tongue to men, and who draw nigh to God with their mouths, but not with their hearts; who halt between two opinions, and are unstable in all their ways:

Source: http://biblehub.com/james/4-8.htm

  • Welcome to ELU. Please take a moment to look around the site and see how upvoted answers are written. Answers are supposed to be self-contained and contain corroborative references. Quoting the Bible verse itself would be helpful; substantiating the rest of the answer is absolutely essential. "Speaking with forked tongue" doesn't usually mean schizophrenic or even just wildly inconsistent about everything. – Andrew Leach Oct 31 '14 at 8:15
  • I will edit and include the quote in its entirety because without it, your answer is open to misinterpretation. – Mari-Lou A Oct 31 '14 at 8:16
  • The downvote goes with the system-generated "Low quality answer" flag, which was valid at the time it was generated. – Andrew Leach Oct 31 '14 at 8:17
  • @Mari-LouA The explanation of the downvote is probably needed now more than it was. It's not relevant to your edited version. Such votes can't be reversed, though. – Andrew Leach Oct 31 '14 at 8:27
  • Personally, I find it fascinating that there are people who visit a site like this, and because they know the Bible by heart they can immediately make a connection. I just wish they would link or provide a bit more detail in their answers. – Mari-Lou A Oct 31 '14 at 8:28

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:16

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.