Why do we say "Speak softly and carry a big stick"?

Well-Known Expressions

Speak softly and carry a big stick


Diplomacy and non-aggression is best, but be ready to back it up with force if needed.


This sentiment is found in Latin: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re—pleasantly in manner, powerfully in deed. According to the Women's Royal Army Corps, which adopted the phrase as its motto, it originates with Claudio Acquaviva, an Italian Jesuit priest (1543-1615) who was one of the founders of the Jesuit order.

A variation, "the iron fist in the velvet glove," is often attributed to Napoleon; but, while there are references to him ruling in this manner, there is no evidence of him directly saying this.

For example, according to The Eclectic Review, volume XII (July 1856):

"The captain of the place," writes Carlyle, in his "Latter-Day Pamphlets," giving a picture of Captain Chesterton, which those who knew him will not fail to recognize,—"a gentleman of ancient military or royal-navy habits, was one of the most perfect governors: professionally, and by nature, zealous for cleanliness, punctuality, good order of every kind; a humane heart, yet a strong one; soft of speech and manner, and yet with an inflexible vigour of command, so far as his means went: 'iron hand in velvet glove,' as Napoleon defined it.

The expression, "speak softly and carry a big stick was popularized by then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1901 speech to the Minnesota State Fair, entitled "National Duties":

"A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick -- you will go far.' "

Earlier, during his two-year term as Governor of New York (1899-1900), Roosevelt wrote to his friend Henry L. Sprague saying: "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." While, taken at face value, Roosevelt appears to be claiming not to have originated this expression, there is no evidence of this actually being an African proverb of any region; and, given that there is no surviving record of the expression before this time, it is not unlikely that he coined it himself and attributed it to West Africa with tongue in cheek.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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