“Speech is silver, silence is golden,” says the proverb, but after looking into the word, I’m not so sure. This isn’t just a trivial matter. If you spend as much time alone as I do, you get used to it and, eventually, begin to prefer it to, especially when the choice is quiet or small talk. Clearly, this is a minority opinion, for in my experience, when you opt for the former over the latter, people start to think there’s something wrong with you. (And maybe they’re right.)
Not surprisingly, this negative take on silence rears its head in definitions of the word. Consider, for example, the following list of definitions for silence from the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.
1. The state or fact of keeping silent; a refraining from speech or the making of noise.
2. absence of any sound or noise; stillness
3. a withholding of knowledge; omission of mention: as in, we noted the author’s silence on that point.
4. failure to communicate, write, keep in touch, etc.
5. oblivion or obscurity
Is it just me, or do things start to head south with the third definition? To see if this is a trend, I consulted another source, the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines silence this way.
1. The condition or quality of being or keeping silent; avoidance of speech or noise.
2. The absence of sound; stillness.
3. A period of time without speech or noise.
4. Refusal or failure to speak out; secrecy.
There it is again! How do we get from “without speech or noise” to “secrecy”? And I didn’t even include to use of silence as a verb, as in “to make silent” or “to suppress”!
To get a better idea of where this suspicion of the silent comes from, I hit the etymology texts. Alas, they were on no help.
The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories had little to say beyond silence comes from the Latin word silentium, which comes from silere, ‘be silent.’ (It also says the phrase “Silence is golden” comes from the early 18th century. [Not the proverb?]).
The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins doesn’t have an entry for silence, but it traces silent back to the same Latin words. It goes on to add that, “it seems likely to be related in some way to Gothic anasilan, a verb which denoted the wind dying down and, perhaps, Latin desinere ‘stop’ (in which case the underlying meaning would be ‘stop speaking.’)”
Origins, the “Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English,” (which isn’t short at all), takes things a step further. It too traces silence back to silere, which it interprets as “to say nothing, keep quiet,” and links the word to both ana-silan, ‘to fall silent,’ and the Norse sil, meaning ‘standing or quietly flowing water.’
Calming winds, standing or quietly flowing water … these are nice things. Surely the cold eye often cast upon the quiet must come from somewhere! Then it hit me, maybe this mistrust of the silent has more to do with the uneasy feeling some people (I’m looking at you extroverts) experience in silent environments.
According to the website Fearof.net, there is a word for this fear of silence: sedatephobia. According to the site:
“To some people, silence can be downright scary. There is term for this phobia: Sedatephobia. The word originates from Greek ‘Sedate’ meaning ‘silent or sleeping or dead’ and Phobos meaning the Greek God of fear, or dread or aversion. The phobia was relatively unheard of 50 years ago. However, today, it is … fairly common.”
Well maybe. I couldn’t find anything any other reputable sources on sedatephobia. It wasn’t mentioned in any of my psychology dictionaries* and the only other website I could find that acknowledged this “fear of silence” was PsychCentral.com and it didn’t give the malady a fancy name. (It just referred to the problem as “the fear of, or anxiety caused by, silence.”)
To be clear, I am not suggestion that everyone who prefers inane conversation to silence suffers from sedatephobia (or whatever it’s called). On the contrary, people are social animals and, clearly, some of those animals need more socializing than others. In fact, the only real issue here is, do they have to have their conversations around me?
* Supplemental Information
Although I couldn’t find anything in my psychological dictionaries about sedatephobia, I did encounter a few related terms in the Psychiatric Dictionary:
Eremiphobia – The fear of a lonely place or solitude.
Eremophilia – The morbid desire to be alone.
Eremophobia – The fear of being alone.