'Bite Your Tongue': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 6, 2023

Have you ever heard the saying 'bite your tongue'? It's quite a peculiar expression. What does it mean? This article will explore the meaning behind this popular idiom, its possible origins, and how to use it.

But if you're just here for the short version, here it is:

  • To bite your tongue means to stop yourself from saying something because it's not the right time or you might hurt someone's feelings.

What Does 'Bite Your Tongue' Mean?

This saying is a perfect example of how idioms can't be interpreted literally. If someone tells you to bite your tongue, they don't want you to literally bite it.

What it actually means is that you should refrain from speaking. There are several reasons why you might want to do that. Perhaps the time isn't right, or to speak up now would be to do some irreversible damage or even be unnecessarily cruel.

The phrase implies that instead of speaking out, one should physically bite their tongue to prevent themselves from saying something inappropriate. Imagine, for example, that your boss spoke to you in a rude manner in front of your colleagues at work. When you're recounting the event to a friend, you might say:

She was so rude to me but I decided to hold my tongue because I need this job and she's leaving next month anyways.

Sometimes people also say, 'hold your tongue.' It means the same thing.

Because this idiom has a verb ('bite'), you might see it in different forms, including:

Where Does 'Bite Your Tongue' Come From?

The exact origins of this idiom are not well-documented, but it likely developed over time as a figurative expression. It's important to note that idioms often evolve organically within a language, and their precise origins can be challenging to trace.

The idea behind "biting your tongue" is a common metaphor for self-restraint, as the tongue is the organ we use to speak. Similar idioms and expressions exist in many languages and cultures, all conveying the idea of holding back one's words. While we may not know the specific origin of "bite your tongue," the concept it represents is universal in human communication.

A Horse's Bridle

The King James Bible, circa 1005 BC, quotes King David in Psalm 39:

To the chief Musician, even to Jeduthun, A Psalm of David. I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.

Interestingly, the mouthpiece that is put in horse's mouths (the bridle) is also often called a 'bit.' Could the original intent have been to refer to placing a bridle in your mouth to refrain from speaking?

Shakespeare's Use of the Idiom

Many sources say this idiom was a favorite of Shakespeare's and that he used it often in his writing. But I could only find one example in his play, Henry VI, Part 2. The line, spoken by the character Queen Margaret in Act 2, Scene 4 of the play, goes like this:

Pirates may make cheap penn'worths of their pillage,
And purchase friends, and give to curtezans,
Still reveling, like lords, till all be gone:
While as the silly owner of the goods? Weeps over them, and wrings his hapless hands,
And shakes his head, and trembling stands aloof,
While all is shar'd, and all is borne away;
Ready to starve, and dares not touch his own.
So York must sit, and fret, and bite his tongue,
While his own lands are bargain'd for, and sold.

Debate Over the Meaning

There are several theories about the meaning of this popular idiom. Some say it's symbolic of punishing your tongue for wanting to say something inappropriate. Others say biting your tongue is a way to hold it in place so you don't speak out of turn.

A 1678 publication titled A Complete Christian Dictionary lists a sort of definition of the word that goes as follows:

[To gnaw their tongues] To take most grievously the fall of their pomp, dignity, and authority ; also furiously, for extreme sorrow, to bite their own tongues. Rev. 16. 10. And they gnawed their tongues for sorrow.
To be in great agony, like those that bite their tongues for grief and anger, ready at the next increase of pain to devour or destroy themselves.

This seems to suggest that biting your tongue signifies you are in great pain, and you bite your tongue to help bear the pain.

If this was the original intended meaning, it's certainly taken on a different meaning over time, and today, it is exclusively used to say you should remain silent.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the idiom's meaning, and its possible origins, here are some examples of it being used in a sentence. 

I'll show you examples of the idiom in its various forms, such as the infinitive, the present participle, the past indefinite, the past participle, and the future simple.

When my boss made that ridiculous suggestion at the office, I had to bite my tongue to avoid laughing out loud.

It's often better to bite your tongue when you're in a heated argument to prevent saying things you'll later regret.

At the family dinner, I had to bite my tongue when my cousin brought up that sensitive topic.

Even though the criticism was unfair, she chose to bite her tongue and pretend she was okay with it.

I wanted to tell him the truth about his terrible haircut, but I decided to bite my tongue and spare his feelings.

It took all my willpower to bite my tongue when my neighbor played loud music late at night.

I have to bite my tongue whenever I hear them discuss their marital problems in front of all of us.

When discussing politics with my friends, I often have to bite my tongue to avoid arguments.

She had to bite her tongue when her child's teacher made a mistake but didn't want to embarrass her in front of the class.

It's not easy to bite your tongue when your auntie is constantly annoying you, but sometimes it's the best way to keep the peace.

Other Ways to Say 'Bite Your Tongue'

With English being such a rich language, there's always more than one way to say something. 'Let sleeping dogs lie is no different.

Here are just some of the other ways you can say it: 

  • Keep quiet
  • Shut your mouth
  • Stay Silent
  • Keep a lid on it
  • Put a sock in it
  • Keep it to yourself
  • Hold your peace
  • Seal your lips

Concluding Thoughts

Well, that pretty much covers it. So, if you ever want to tell a friend to keep quiet and save their comments for a more appropriate time (or person), you can ask them to hold their tongue.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!    

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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