Mums the Word - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Do you have a secret you're bursting to tell someone? That's the one thing we know about secrets – they are hard to keep. If you need to tell someone something private, and you want them to keep it to themselves, you could use the idiom "mums the word."

This post unpacks the meaning, origin, and use of the phrase.

Mums the Word  Meaning

The meaning of "mums the word" refers to keeping quiet about something private or secret. When you use the phrase, you tell someone to keep quiet about what you're about to say to them in confidence.

Typically, people will say the phrase to people they know, but you can use it when speaking to a general audience. "Mums the word" suits use in all types of conversation, and many people understand what you're referring to, even the younger generations.

The expression often accompanies the speaker placing their index finger to their lips as a sign to keep quiet about the information they heard.

Mums the Word Example Usage

"I've got to tell you guys something important, Richard is having an affair with Cloe, but mums the word, we don't want her friends finding out."

"I told you that in confidence, so mums the word, right?"

"You remember last week when I told you about that problem at work? Well, mums the word, I don't want my colleagues finding out."

"I'm going to bring you in on the preparations for Caroline's surprise birthday party, but mums the word. The last thing we need is her discovering our plans before the big day."

Mums the Word Origin

So, where did "mums the word" originate? There is no clear evidence pointing to the coining of the phrase. However, some experts think that "mums the word" derives from the word "Mummer." Back in medieval times, a mummer was a person that could not speak or was not allowed to speak.

They would perform dances, plays, or games in silence to amuse the royalty. In Philadelphia, there is a festival keeping the tradition alive and well, with "Mummers day" being a popular event held each year on New Year's Day.

Other language experts believe the phrase comes from the Shakespeare play, Henry VI, Part 2. Shakespeare penned the play in 1592, and Part 2 has the line, "Seal up your lips and give no words but mum."

This use of the word has nothing to do with depicting the mother figure of the household. Mum is a popular colloquialism for mothers in the UK, but not in this reference.

Another version of the phrase is "mum is counsel," used up to the 16th century. The earliest reference of this phrase comes from "A Walk Around London and Westminster – The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown," authored in 1720.

Phrases Similar to Mums the Word

  • Keep it undercover.
  • Keep it on the low.
  • Stay quiet.
  • Snitches get stitches.

Phrases Opposite to Mums the Word

  • Tell everyone you know.
  • Be a blabbermouth.
  • Sing it from the rooftops.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Mum's the word.

Ways People May Say Mums the Word Incorrectly

The phrase doesn't suit use in professional settings. It's colloquial language referring to secrecy, and there should be no secrecy in the workplace. People may also use the phrase to tell people to be quiet, and that's not the correct use in colloquial language.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Mums the Word

You can use "mums the word" in social settings where you're talking to someone you trust or someone you just met. It's a way of asking them to keep quiet about what you're about to reveal to the person or group.

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