Most of us may not have given the phrase “quiet as a mouse” much thought—the tiny creature doesn’t seem to make much noise, so the idiom looks pretty self-explanatory. But if you’ve ever heard a mouse’s unusually loud shriek for a creature of their size, you might have wondered why the saying refers to a mouse and not a much quieter animal.
The phrase “quiet as a mouse” is thought to have originated from how a mouse freezes when faced with danger. It refers to the mouse’s ability to be quiet when necessary rather than the absence of noise from the creature.
The phrase’s intended meaning is to remain quiet to be undetectable, not just quiet in general. This is why we say “quiet as a mouse,” taking a deep dive into where the phrase comes from. Keep reading to learn more about this phrase, its fascinating history, how it’s used, and when to use it.
The Etymology of the Phrase “Quiet as a Mouse”
While the phrase “quiet as a mouse” seems relatively straightforward, it has journeyed long from its original form to the phrase we use today.
Below is some insightful information about the phrase and where it came from.
Where Did “As Quiet as a Mouse” Come From?
The saying “quiet as a mouse” hasn’t always been this way. It is actually a derivative of a similar phrase from the 1300s that was used to describe staying undetectable. The original phrase was “as still as a mouse.”
The phrase used to be “still as a mouse” because it referred to a defense mechanism that the mouse employs against predators. When faced with danger, a mouse will stop dead in its tracks and stay completely silent in the hopes of remaining undetected. This is how the phrase came to describe the same thing for people.
The phrase, therefore, refers to someone being as silent as possible. It was used to indicate very little movement and total silence until around the 16th century. At this point, the term “quiet as a mouse” entered alongside “still as a mouse,” and both were used alongside each other for centuries.
The Definition of “Quiet as a Mouse”
So, what’s the definition of the phrase “quiet as a mouse”?
In today’s world, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the phrase is being exceptionally quiet. This is how most people use the phrase, and it can be used in any situation where somebody is not talking and is silent.
For instance, you can use the phrase in the following sentence, “Timmy is a timid child; he is quiet as a mouse.” This would be a correct use of the phrase in modern English. However, this hasn’t always been the case. “Quiet as a mouse” used to have a far more specific meaning.
Older versions of “quiet as a mouse” were used to signify the need to be quiet to avoid danger. In other times, the sentence in the previous paragraph would be incorrect, but “stay low and remain quiet as a mouse” would be acceptable.
To understand why this is the case, we need to take a closer look at how the phrase “quiet as a mouse” came about, from its original context to today.
How “Still as a Mouse” Became “Quiet as a Mouse”
It isn’t known exactly how the phrase “quiet as a mouse” came to be, except that it derived from the phrase “still as a mouse.” So what happened in the 1500s that led to the introduction of the phrase in our vocabulary?
This may be where two popular phrases accidentally merged and were passed down through word of mouth. In the 1590s, William Shakespeare’s play King John featured the phrase “quiet as a lamb,” it is possible that these two phrases combined to create the term quiet as a mouse.
Other similar uses in literature at the time may have had a similar effect. In Hyperion by John Keats, he refers to the protagonist as “quiet as stone.” This may have been a popular phrase at the time, or it could have entered the English language at the time of the poem’s publishing. Either way, it could have easily merged together with “still as a mouse” to create “quiet as a mouse.”
Has “Quiet as a Mouse” Replaced “Still as a Mouse?”
Although “quiet as a mouse” is a clear derivative of “still as a mouse,” the two idioms coexisted for many years at similar popularity levels. It wasn’t until the 20th century that “still as a mouse” began to wane in popularity.
Today, “quiet as a mouse” is twice as common as “still as a mouse,” but it hasn’t dropped entirely out of circulation. The former is just far more common in modern English. You can see this from the search term platform Google Trends. While “quiet as a mouse” has a low but steady stream of searches from 2004, there is not enough data around “still as a mouse” to show the trends.
People Also Ask
What Does the Phrase “Quiet as a Church Mouse” Mean?
This phrase is a less common saying that is similar to “quiet as a mouse.”
The phrase “quiet as a church mouse” derives from “quiet as a mouse” and the association between church and quiet. This means that if an ordinary mouse is quiet, a church mouse would be twice as quiet, or even silent.
What Type of Figurative Language Is “As Quiet as a Mouse?”
“As quiet as a mouse” is a simile. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that are often introduced by “like” or “as.” It is a common format for idioms in the English language.
Other examples of similes include “dead as a doornail”—something that is definitely dead—and “as fit as a fiddle,” meaning in great shape.
What Other Phrases Mean the Same As “As Quiet as a Mouse?”
Some phrases that mean the same thing as the phrase “as quiet as a mouse” include “as quiet as a snowy night” and “you could hear a pin drop.” They can be used interchangeably.
“As quiet as a snowy night” originates from a combination of two things. First, there would be nobody out on a snowy night; it would be dark and icy, so people and creatures alike would remain sheltered. The other is that thick snow on the ground absorbs sound, creating an unusual sense of quiet.
Some people use the phrase “quiet as the grave” interchangeably with “as quiet as a mouse.” However, although they have similar meanings, they’re not exactly the same. “Quiet as a mouse” is normally used to describe a single person, and “quiet as the grave” usually refers to a place. An example of this is “after all the businesses closed, the town was as quiet as the grave.”
“Quiet as a mouse” is a fascinating example of a phrase that has broadened its meaning. It has derived from a different term with another purpose, but the definition has changed over time to suit the phrase better.
This phrase is an excellent example of how the English language is ever-evolving. Language doesn’t have to be set in stone and abide by written rules. The real magic of language is that it adapts to the times, which means we can learn a lot about our history based on the words used back then and how they have changed over time.
- Dan Sensei English: As Quiet as a Mouse Explained
- The Free Dictionary – Idioms: Quiet as a mouse
- A Million Metaphors: Quiet as a Lamb
- Writing Explained: What does as quiet as a mouse mean?
- Idiom Origins: Quiet as a Mouse
- Merriam Webster: As Quiet as a Mouse
- Poetry Foundation: Hyperion
- Google Trends: Quiet as a Mouse
- Quora: What Does the Phrase as Quiet as a Church Mouse Mean
- Quora: What are Some Similes to Explain Quiet
- The Free Dictionary – Idioms: Quiet as a mouse and quiet as the grave
- Merriam-Webster: Simile
- The Free Dictionary – Idioms: Hear a pin drop