“Out of the mouths of babes”: Is this idiom strictly used to refer to children


According to Cambridge Dictionary, “out of the mouths of babes” is an idiom used when a child says something that is surprisingly wise. So, it is used to compliment the child for saying something that’s beyond their years.

In the chess world, there was a recent social media dispute:

  • Chess player A, who is 15-years-old, tweeted a general suggestion for counteracting cheating in the game.
  • Chess player B, who is 33-years-old, replied with “out of the mouths of babes”.
  • Chess player A got offended and replied with a harsh tweet that began with “I am neither a babe nor a baby.”

Chess player A (or his social media manager) later apologized and deleted the harsh tweet.

While the idiom is used to convey agreement or praise, I can understand why chess player A got offended, as it also emphasizes the recipient’s young age through the word “babe”. I would like to know if this idiom is meant to be strictly used with children, or whether there is recorded use of it by an adult directed at a teenager.

As an additional question, I would also like to know if this idiom is appropriate in today’s age in general. Use of the word “babe” to signify a baby or an infant is not commonplace in present-day English, and is confined to literary and poetic contexts. Instead, the slang meaning of “attractive young woman” is much more common. So, is the idiom perhaps considered obsolete in general nowadays?

Best Answer

Most dictionaries explain that this biblical passage has survived in modern English as a proverb about children. For example, Dictionary.com points out two qualities of babes this proverb refers to:

Young and inexperienced persons often can be remarkably wise, as in

She's only six but she said, quite rightly, that Harry was afraid of the sitter—out of the mouths of babes, Mother said.

For someone who knows the proverb, the context is unambiguous. B's use of the proverb is not mistaken, just misunderstood. And this is due to the rapid increase of the gap between generations, with the modern world changing so fast. So the misunderstanding lies somewhere in the middle, between B's ignorance of the origin and meaning of the proverb, and A's not foreseeing that B is quite likely to misunderstand it because of this gap.

According to The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (Martin H. Manser, ‎Rosalind Fergusson, 2007), there is a similar proverb which includes fools:

out of the mouths of babes (and sucklings come great truths)
Children often make surprisingly pertinent remarks or profound observations by accident:

I asked Megan if she knew what divorce was, and she said, "It's when your dad doesn't live with you any more but buys you better birthday presents." Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!

The proverb is of biblical origin:

'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hath thou ordained strength" (Psalm 8 : 2),
"Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?" (Matthew 21 : 16).

It is often used in a shortened and allusive form, as in the example. Variant of this proverb: from the mouths of babes come words of wisdom.

Proverb expressing similar meaning:


This proverb is not labelled by dictionaries as outdated or obsolete. Cambridge only describes it as literary saying. As @Kate explained, it is easy for a teenager to mistake the word babes as an insulting appellative due to its modern use. Basically because of this difference in meaning, B completely misunderstood A's compliment as an insult.