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According to Cambridge Dictionary, “out of the mouths of babes” is an idiom used when a child says something that is surprisingly wise. So, it is used to compliment the child for saying something that’s beyond their years.


In the chess world, there was a recent social media dispute:

  • Chess player A, who is 15-years-old, tweeted a general suggestion for counteracting cheating in the game.
  • Chess player B, who is 33-years-old, replied with “out of the mouths of babes”.
  • Chess player A got offended and replied with a harsh tweet that began with “I am neither a babe nor a baby.”

Chess player A (or his social media manager) later apologized and deleted the harsh tweet.


While the idiom is used to convey agreement or praise, I can understand why chess player A got offended, as it also emphasizes the recipient’s young age through the word “babe”. I would like to know if this idiom is meant to be strictly used with children, or whether there is recorded use of it by an adult directed at a teenager.

As an additional question, I would also like to know if this idiom is appropriate in today’s age in general. Use of the word “babe” to signify a baby or an infant is not commonplace in present-day English, and is confined to literary and poetic contexts. Instead, the slang meaning of “attractive young woman” is much more common. So, is the idiom perhaps considered obsolete in general nowadays?

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    It’s not obsolete; it’s just not as common as it used to be.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 12 at 8:08
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    This question has two parts. One is a matter of opinion: how old you have to be for it no longer to apply, or when is it polite or impolite to refer to a young person as a young person. Some young folks object to being called any term such as "child" at the age of 12; whether that's reasonable is also a matter of opinion. Maybe try Parenting SE for that. Whether it's still in use is a valid question, but one that can be answered trivially.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 12 at 14:14
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    It's not usually used as a compliment, especially if it is used in conversation with the person who is being considered inexperienced or naive.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 12 at 17:31
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    It was more common to call teenagers “babes” a few generations ago. Judy Garland starred with Mickey Rooney in “Babes in Arms,” in 1938, when she was fifteen, and in “Babes on Broadway” three years later.
    – Davislor
    Commented May 13 at 14:50
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    @user207421 Actually A who got offended apologized. B who quoted the Bible did not apologize. He had no reason to.
    – fev
    Commented May 14 at 10:17

8 Answers 8

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Most dictionaries explain that this biblical passage has survived in modern English as a proverb about children. For example, Dictionary.com points out two qualities of babes this proverb refers to:

Young and inexperienced persons often can be remarkably wise, as in

She's only six but she said, quite rightly, that Harry was afraid of the sitter—out of the mouths of babes, Mother said.

For someone who knows the proverb, the context is unambiguous. B's use of the proverb is not mistaken, just misunderstood. And this is due to the rapid increase of the gap between generations, with the modern world changing so fast. So the misunderstanding lies somewhere in the middle, between A's ignorance of the origin and meaning of the proverb, and B's not foreseeing that A is quite likely to misunderstand it because of this gap.

According to The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (Martin H. Manser, ‎Rosalind Fergusson, 2007), there is a similar proverb which includes fools:

out of the mouths of babes (and sucklings come great truths)
Children often make surprisingly pertinent remarks or profound observations by accident:

I asked Megan if she knew what divorce was, and she said, "It's when your dad doesn't live with you any more but buys you better birthday presents." Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!

The proverb is of biblical origin:

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength (Psalm 8 : 2),
Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21 : 16).

It is often used in a shortened and allusive form, as in the example. Variant of this proverb: from the mouths of babes come words of wisdom.

Proverb expressing similar meaning:

CHILDREN AND FOOLS SPEAK THE TRUTH.

This proverb is not labelled by dictionaries as outdated or obsolete. Cambridge only describes it as literary saying. As @Kate explained, it is easy for a teenager to mistake the word babes as an insulting appellative due to its modern use. Basically because of this difference in meaning, A completely misunderstood B's compliment as an insult.

Τhe fact that A came back and apologised shows he realised his misunderstanding after a bit of research. Having more wisdom than normally expected is supposed to be a compliment, because it says that you exceed the expectations of your interlocutor. It does not assess the expectations as being low.

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    You don't think a 15-year-old who understood the phrase and its connotations perfectly could be offended at the insinuation that they could only have a good idea by accident? Commented May 12 at 19:48
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    @the-baby-is-you: I quite disagree with the listed definition that the proverb implies by accident. I think this is a biased interpretation. At its heart, the proverb points out that children don't overcomplicate things as much as adults do. This is attributed to them (by the proverb) as a consistent trait more so than a randomly occurring event. It feels like the author of that definition is rephrasing this with an adults' bias: instead of considering that the adults overcomplicate things, it's phrased as if the "babes" make random uneducated guesses, which is not what's being conveyed at all
    – Flater
    Commented May 14 at 3:33
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    @the-baby-is-you: Maybe more succinctly: The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs' definition implies that "out the mouth of babes" has a meaning similar to "a broken clock is right twice a day", i.e. that there is no intelligence to their correctness; which is not a correct interpretation. The focus is on the innocence of children and how plainly they speak; not pure luck. Other definitions do not imply any serendipitous nature: 1 2
    – Flater
    Commented May 14 at 3:37
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    @kaya3: The point of the proverb is to indicate that having a low expectation would be wrong (because "babes" do speak wisdoms, so it would be unwise to ignore something purely because it comes out of a "babe's" mouth). What you're pointing out is the core meaning of the proverb.
    – Flater
    Commented May 14 at 3:42
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    @kaya3: Anything can be anything in the right context, especially in the field of etiquette when factoring in things like sarcasm. You're not wrong but you could be saying that about anything, which makes it irrelevant as a supposed counter to what's being said. The quoted paragraph (not mine, by the way) is correct. Saying that someone got over the wall does not indicate anything about how high the wall is or by how much they cleared it.
    – Flater
    Commented May 14 at 23:08
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It's not only used when the very young come up with something wise (or intelligent) beyond their years. It's used when wisdom comes from any unexpected source ... but there is necessarily an implication of lack of sophistication, that such wisdom / intelligence would not be expected from such a source.

This might be fine when addressing a friend speaking about particle physics and having a eureka moment, but generally attributing a lack of wisdom (and especially of intelligence) to someone is derogatory.

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This is one of those phrases from the King James Bible which passed into current English when that was the only translation in common use. (Psalm 8 verse 2) It's a comment traditionally made when a child says something unexpectedly mature or wise, so it appears that B was complimenting A on having a good idea at a young age. It's understandable that a 15-year-old would only be familiar with the modern slang meaning of 'babe'.

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    Would you agree that, usually a compliment, the phrase can also label anything introduced naively or suggested out of context - a statement that is late to the party? Commented May 12 at 13:03
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    @YosefBaskin - Not in my experience. Commented May 12 at 13:57
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    @YosefBaskin I think it sometimes does refer to a wise observation made by someone who lacks the experience that results in becoming jaded. There often is some naiveté involved.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 12 at 17:46
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You’re missing the context. Player B is Russian and in his language it’s a common colloquialism aimed anyone younger than you. Player A is Indian and has no idea of Russian colloquialisms or English Bible, thus he reacted just as expected.

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    As the other answers have suggested, this is an English idiom. Can you please provide some more information about the Russian version? How is it written? Also, besides the point, but Player A is Indian-American.
    – hb20007
    Commented May 12 at 10:02
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    @hb20007 It's not specifically an English idiom. It's from the bible. This idiom is found in many languages, presumably all languages from countries that have a history of dominant Christianity, including English.
    – Stef
    Commented May 12 at 23:06
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    @Stef But the Bible verses are quite different... The "Out of the mouth of babes" phrase is used in a different context, so it does not seem to be a given that languages from Christian countries would have this idiom with this meaning.
    – hb20007
    Commented May 13 at 7:20
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    @hb20007 The phrase "Ex ore infantium et lactantium" appears in the Bible as far back as Latin; this is likely going to be an idiom in at any western Christian culture, at a minimum. Out of the mouth of babes is a faithful translation, not an English-only oddity.
    – Michael W.
    Commented May 14 at 15:47
  • @MichaelW. But the Bible says "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength". Nothing related to speaking the truth or saying something wise.
    – hb20007
    Commented May 14 at 20:07
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The language, being from the KJV, is archaic, but the idiom is not obsolete, neither is its application strictly to babies. It can instead refer broadly to the relatively inexperienced regardless of age. For example, a 2023 piece in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette posed a rhetorical question about a Russian teenager’s professional tennis ambition.

Yes, Andreeva has lofty aims. Asked to define what her dreams are in her sport, she mentioned that Novak Djokovic has 22 Grand Slam titles.

“So I want to go,” Andreeva said, “until 25.”

Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

This is not a knock against Andreeva. In many traditions, maintaining the beginner’s mind is positive and highly encouraged. We old salts tend to blind ourselves with habits and customs that turn out to get in the way of growth. From that perspective, out of the mouths of babes chides those who fail to see an answer — or are unwilling to — that they, the allegedly wiser, should have.

Other possible factors:

  • Idioms can translate poorly across languages.
  • A chess player took an overly literal interpretation.
  • Recreational outrage is fashionable, so some are quick to claim aggrieved status rather than applying the principle of charity.

Absent more information about Player B’s intent, I would not read it as being at all harsh.

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This is a common idiom in my experience.

However, I would not strictly take it as a compliment; it is intrinsically patronising and as a 15-year-old I would have taken offence, at least a little bit. This is because it (1) does quite strictly refer to young children, and (2) it implies to me that the subject has ignored a social rule that prevented the adults from saying the same (a similar concept to in vino veritas).

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  • The original use in the Bible is definitely positive, never pejorative. Do you think this positive connotation is deteriorating because of the rapid change in modern language?
    – fev
    Commented May 13 at 15:48
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    The assertion that it “does quite strictly refer to young children” is false.
    – Greg Bacon
    Commented May 13 at 22:17
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When the phrase is used literally, it applies to children. There's no specific age cutoff. It's not like it's correct to use it to refer to someone who is 8 years and 4 months old but not to someone who is 8 years and 5 months. That said, it's unusual to hear it used to refer to someone over 12 or so.

The fact that "babe" is now a slang term for an attractive young woman is irrelevant. No one uses this idiom to refer to attractive women. If they did, it would surely be taken as a joke. Probably at least slightly demeaning, like implying that you don't expect a woman to be smart enough to know this.

Using it to refer to a teenager is odd. Depending on context and how it was said and the personalities involved, it might or might not be considered insulting. The example you gave, if I was the teenager I doubt I would have taken it as insulting. Someone who is young and thus new to the subject came up with something particularly clever. I don't really see that as insulting. Of course there are people who offended if you say "good morning", so I'm not shocked that someone was offended by it.

Age is, of course, relative. If we were discussing retirement planning and a 30 year old made some insightful comment, someone might say "out of the mouths of babes ...", because while 30 is certainly not a literal baby, it is also very young to know a lot about retirement.

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    The plot thickens. There is some evidence that suggests that the father of the 15-year-old used his son't X (Twitter) account to reply. The father admitted he was unaware of the proverb and its meaning.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 15 at 10:24
  • @Mari-LouA Reminds me of a joke I read years ago: "He said I was laconic." "What does that mean?" "I don't know, but I punched him in the face just to be on the safe side."
    – Jay
    Commented May 16 at 15:35
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It implies that the person has come up with a good insight which would not be expected given their inexperience and immaturity. Used about a child, it's a definite compliment, because experience and maturity come with age and cannot be expected from a child.

Used for an older person it might be a barbed compliment or ironic, because of this implication. A literal observation might be "that's a very good point but perhaps a bit too simplistic". Context is everything.

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  • @Mari-Lou_A No, a typo. Fixed.
    – nigel222
    Commented May 15 at 12:31
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    Fixed. Sigh....
    – nigel222
    Commented May 16 at 8:31

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