Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone to keep calm and be ready for action? If that’s the case, you could say to them, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

If you “speak softly and carry a big stick,” you have a pleasant, non-confrontational demeanor to your personality but a fierce force inside you that could do physical or verbal harm to others.

This proverbial saying advises using the tactic of practicing caution and non-violence, backed up with the ability to defend yourself or cause harm if someone provokes you. You can use it in professional and social settings.

Example Usage

“I was chatting with your mate Tom. He seems to think he knows a lot about crypto. However, he’s got huge gaps in his knowledge. I decided to speak softly and carry a big stick rather than challenge him about concepts he knows nothing about.”

“It’s your first day at college. Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

“My dad told me always to speak softly and carry a big stick. Just because I have a black belt doesn’t mean that I need to display my talent in public.”

Speak softly and carry a big stick. People don’t need to know that you can outcompete them in anything; leave that to the contest.”

Origin

The origin of the expression, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” comes from American president Theodore Roosevelt. The then-president penned a letter to Henry L. Sprague on January 26th, 1900. In the letter, he uses the phrase as follows.

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Roosevelt claims that the saying has an African origin, but there is no proof verifying those claims. The expression “speak softly and carry a big stick” went on to gain popularity in the last half of the 20th century, and it’s a common phrase in personal development circles.

Phrases Similar to Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

  • Keep your powder dry.
  • The grey man.

Phrases Opposite to Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

  • Be a loudmouth.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Ways People May Say Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick Incorrectly

The phrase doesn’t mean that you should speak with a soft voice or that you should carry a stick around with you. The “soft” part of the saying refers to the act of staying calm or not being overenthusiastic. The “stick” in the phrase refers to a weapon, whether that is a physical weapon or a verbal one.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

You can use the phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick” in several situations. For instance, it could refer to you carrying a firearm for protection and engaging in a confrontation where someone starts arguing with you. Instead of fighting with them, you could calmly disengage from the situation because you know you could use your firearm if the situation calls for it.

It’s also a good way to tell someone not to use their full intellect when engaging someone in conversation or argument. For instance, if someone is talking to you on a subject where you have more knowledge and don’t realize it, you would not stop and ridicule them, but rather “keep your powder dry” in case they challenge you on a topic or to a physical confrontation.

 

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