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The title of my question is a Russian proverb, for which I cannot think of an analog. All the examples I have seen on this website refer to actions rather than specifically speech. Can anyone give me an example of a colloquial phrase about the irreversibility of speech?

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    A direct translation, by myself, of an Indian proverb: "A weapon that has left your hand, and a word that has left your mouth - you cannot get them back" – NVZ Oct 6 '17 at 10:15
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    @NVZ It wouldn't work in Australian English. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 10:23
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    To be honest, the title of this question sounded like an American idiom to me (as a native US speaker) - just one I wasn't familiar with. I came here expecting this to be a "what does ... mean in this quote" type question. – Ghotir Oct 6 '17 at 15:52
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    @Lawrence I think Edwin is alluding to boomerangs (though maybe a joke just went flying over my head). – David Richerby Oct 6 '17 at 16:58
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    @HotLicks I agree, the original is perfectly intelligible and understandable. – barbecue Oct 7 '17 at 16:08

15 Answers 15

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Probably not an established set phrase, but I often hear and read:

Words once spoken ( cannot be retrieved, cannot be taken back)

It may derive from the Latin proverb:

Nescit vox missa reverti.

Translation: "A word once spoken can never be recalled." From Horace. Another interpretation: "Think twice before you speak."

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    The English version has been attributed to Wentworth Dillon (c.1633-1685): Words once spoken can never be recalled. [Wiseoldsayings.com/] – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 8:52
  • That's about the best I've seen. – AndrewMLale Oct 6 '17 at 9:50
  • "Please engage brain before putting mouth into gear" is similar to the "think twice ..." idea. – AdrianHHH Oct 9 '17 at 12:38
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The bell, once rung, cannot be unrung.

or

You cannot unring the bell.

Google books traces "cannot be unrung" to 1924:

... what is learned or suspected outside of court may have some influence on the judicial decision. It may be only a subtle or even subconscious influence, but a bell cannot be unrung. Adverse claimants have at least some reason to fear ...

By 1948 it is in the Utah bar bulletin:

if the matter has already been printed and in the hands of the jury, the bell cannot be unrung

by 1956, it was being used as a commonplace in Sandez v US:

Could the court "unring the bell" by subsequently instructing the jury that Exhibit 29 was admissible only against Perno? We think it doubtful.

I also concur with "Let the cat out of the bag". This paints a different word-picture but the sense is similar.

  • I like this one the best, I think -- it gives a good analogy by using an inanimate object but it's also a sound, so it gets the point across well – galois Oct 6 '17 at 17:28
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    This isn't specific to speech, it can refer to any action that's irreversible. – Barmar Oct 7 '17 at 7:48
  • @Barmar In its original realm of jurisprudence, it's pretty specific to information: once the jury knows about something, you can't "unring the bell" and make them not know it anymore, no matter what kind of jury instruction is issued. Usually this means they can't un-hear testimony, but sometimes it can mean they can't un-see other kinds of evidence. It doesn't just apply to any kind of irreversible action, though: one generally wouldn't say "you can't unring the bell" when referring to the fact that a murder victim can't be brought back to life, for example. – 1006a Oct 7 '17 at 20:06
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Little said is soonest mended.

George Wither (1588-1667)

[Wiseoldsayings.com]

The always thorough Ken Greenwood, at Wordwizard, adds this research:

LEAST SAID, SOONEST MENDED proverb: ... The expression dates from the 18th century in this form, but the notion dates from the 15th century (see quote below) and where it appeared in the form, which is still seen, little said (is) soon amended (see 1555 quote below).

(Allen’s English Phrases, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Random House Dictionary of America’s Popular Proverbs and Sayings)

and more.

.......

letting the cat out of the bag also speaks of the Pandora's Box effect, the impossibility of unscrambling scrambled eggs, here the futility of trying to 'unsay' something, but is used only when a secret has been blabbed.

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    How is that specific to speech? – AndrewMLale Oct 6 '17 at 9:48
  • I assume you mean the second example. The Phrase Finder has: << let the cat out of the bag ​ Disclose a secret [often without intending to] >> . It's a metaphor (your 'Words are not sparrows; once they have flown they cannot be recaptured' is essentially a dissimile). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 10:19
  • These should be two separate answers. I think "Let the cat out of the bag" is best. – Ben Oct 6 '17 at 17:08
  • @Ben says No to Politics on SO Have you ELU-specific advice that endorses this view? I was redirected away from ELU Meta, and I don't think the advice I found applies very well here. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 21:23
  • @EdwinAshworth I have no idea what ELU policy is, but they are two separate answers in the normal sense of "answer" so I think they should be two separate Answers on ELU :-) I just think it works better. – Ben Oct 7 '17 at 15:27
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There is a similar quote that I am familiar with. It is analogous to your own and refers specifically to the irreversibility of speech:

Words, like arrows, cannot be put back into the quiver

  • Um.. I can put those arrows back in the quiver. Here I go, they're right here in the target, just gotta give it a little pull and yep in you go! – Josh KG Oct 8 '17 at 19:32
  • (Your comment may have been a joke, if so I apologise!) Hunting arrows are designed to leave their heads in the target so it's harder for it/them to recover; the advice was usually to try and pull the arrow through, but then you'd destroy the fletching. Either way you're going to need to replace some of the arrow, which you could argue is the same… 😜 – JP. Oct 9 '17 at 16:43
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Attributed to the Sufi Hussein Nishah:

Be careful with your words. Once spoken, they can only be forgiven, not forgotten.

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A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

You see this on twitter a lot! The initial tweet might have 10,000 retweets, but the retraction "looks like that wasn't true" will have 100.

This also recalls a Chinese proverb:

A word once spoken, an army of chariots cannot overtake it

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I've heard variations on “You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube,” often accompanied by a demonstration of that difficulty, particularly given as a warning for children or teenagers that once words are said their impact can't be easily reversed.

  • Captures the intended meaning perfectly while subverting the image entirely. – Mitch Oct 6 '17 at 19:21
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I had a World Almanac that had various foreign phrases and cliches translated into English. I remember this one, translated from Chinese: Not the fastest horse can catch a word spoken in anger.

  • Off topic, but others included: "As honest as a cat when the meat's out of reach"; and "Pride went out on a horse but came home walking" – Bumptious Q Bangwhistle Oct 6 '17 at 10:36
  • More somewhat on topic comments. A Latin phrase "rumor volat." (A rumor flies.) "Put the brain in gear before starting the mouth." (A rephrase of think before you speak.) "Reversible processes leave no footprints on the sands of time." (From a thermodynamics course.) – ttw Oct 9 '17 at 1:45
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There was an owl liv'd in an oak

The more he heard, the less he spoke

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

O, if men were all like that wise bird

Modification of an ancient English nursery rhyme, used by the US army during WW2 with the ending:

Soldier, be like that old bird.

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While not exactly as required, Abraham Lincoln is often credited with

It is better to keep your mouth closed and be considered a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

  • Lincoln being the most frequently misattributed sage from history. – WS2 Oct 11 '17 at 8:42
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    @WS2 - Didn't he also say "The problem with internet quotes is that you can't always depend on their accuracy" ? ;) – AndyT Oct 11 '17 at 9:00
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    @AndyT "No, that's preposterous! He never said that!" - Albert Einstein – NVZ Oct 11 '17 at 9:01
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Question: What's the context? You could be casual, "once it's out there, it's out there." There was another post about arrows and regrettable utterances... I liked this take on it: "Words can be like arrows shot from a bow, piercing and wounding. Be careful with words, they cannot be unsaid."

I like the response from user: NVZ (with my take on it): "A weapon that has left your hand, a word that has left your mouth - cannot be gotten back."

I checked out this site: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/English_proverbs_(alphabetically_by_proverb). The closest proverb I found is this:

"A word spoken is past recalling." Mieder, Wolfgang; Kingsbury, Stewart A.; Harder, Kelsie B. (1992). A Dictionary of American proverbs. p. 925.

Eloquent, I think. I had no idea who Mieder was. Apparently, he's a professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont (wikipedia).

Hope that helps.

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Another variant that was not mentioned yet: "You are a master of an unspoken word, and a slave of a spoken one."

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We have similar saying in Chinese, 'Water poured to the ground, or labberred can not be drawn back'.

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    Can you look up the word you have translated as "labberred", please? It doesn't appear to be an English word. – Rupert Morrish Oct 11 '17 at 3:47
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    It appears that this is just a translation of a Chinese saying, and not one commonly used in English. As per our community consensus, this is not an acceptable answer on the site. See Can I answer with translated proverbs or expressions?. – NVZ Oct 11 '17 at 6:03
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The moving finger writes, and, having writ moves on, Nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it. "Omar Khayyam" (sometime after the year 1048)

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It does no good to close the barn after the horses are gone. Why? Because the train has already left the station. My advice? Don't cry over spilt milk.

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    Please make it clearer that these are different idioms, and add references to their meaning. – Rupert Morrish Oct 11 '17 at 3:54

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