Here is where I first heard the slang: Champion for Democracy? - Woodrow Wilson

Towards the end of the video, Neidell urges viewers to post their views about Wilson and says: "Please keep it civil!", in a seemingly cautioning, still friendly, manner.

I looked up its definition and as per Urban Dictionary, I concluded it's best suited for a heated discussion or a raw, not as friendly advice.

The question is: When should I use it? Does it reflect anger or intimidation? Could it be used in a friendly manner? And is it old-fashioned?

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    I'd say precisely the opposite - per this NGram, the usage has been gaining traction over recent decades. Plus I suspect this particular kind of "dummy it" usage was quite uncommon if we go back to Victorian or earlier times. But it is potentially quite insulting, so if you're not a native speaker (and/or not afraid of stirring things up a bit) you'd be well advised to avoid it like the plague! Jul 27, 2018 at 12:46
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    It means "don't start a fight". Usually implying the avoidance of inflammatory language.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 27, 2018 at 12:52
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    Ahmed you need to edit your question and explain that you understand its meaning. Otherwise this question will be closed for lack of effort and research. The site is not an online dictionary service.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2018 at 13:43
  • @Mari-LouA - it a pity it is closed, usage context and usage frequency are not GR. That’s what the OP is asking.
    – user 66974
    Jul 27, 2018 at 13:46
  • You want "old-fashioned"? Let us observe the courtesies! Jul 27, 2018 at 13:46

3 Answers 3


Sometimes said as "keep a civil tongue" instead of "keep it civil," this phrase can be used as a warning to someone/ a group to maintain civil (courteous and polite) behavior, usually when a controversial topic will be discussed or you see that tensions are rising between people for any reason.

Using "keep it civil" can elicit different reactions depending on how you say it.

E.g.) Scolding someone with this phrase could lead to them actually acting even less civil.

E.g.) Using it casually when addressing 2+ people would probably be an effective reminder to them.

As for it being old, I disagree. It's something I still use today pretty commonly.

Here's the TFD definition of keep a civil tongue

To speak kindly and politely.
Please try to keep a civil tongue in your head the next time you talk to Mary, instead of arguing with her, OK?


The more common idiomatic expression is keep a civil tongue (in one's head):

Fig. to speak decently and politely.

  • Please, John, don't talk like that. Keep a civil tongue in your head. John seems unable to keep a civil tongue.*

(McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.)

As noted, the expression is fairly common.


The sense of "polite" was in classical Latin, but English did not pick up this nuance of the word until late 16c., and it has tended to descend in meaning to "meeting minimum standards of courtesy." "Courteous is thus more commonly said of superiors, civil of inferiors, since it implies or suggests the possibility of incivility or rudeness" [OED].


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    That point about civil being more commonly said of inferiors reflects exactly the point I was trying to make in my comment. to the question. I don't find it hard to imagine contexts where a non-native speaker might be placing his job at risk by using the term inappropriately, and inadvertently offending his superiors at work . Best avoided unless you know exactly how the usage will be taken (and/or don't care about irritating / disrtespecting the people you're addressing). Jul 27, 2018 at 13:42

While the connection to "keep a civil tongue in your head" is clear, there is a larger, and somewhat less personal aspect.

The operational term here is civility


formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. "I hope we can treat each other with civility and respect"

Or, less formally, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/civility?s=t

courtesy; politeness.

So, to keep it civil means to maintain civility, to keep the conversation polite.

The injunction "keep a civil tongue in your head" is rather rude and expresses an arrogance in that it assumes that the speaker has the right to curtly demand a certain behavior from the person being addressed. As such it is itself borderline uncivil.


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