Washington (CNN)On Thursday afternoon in the White House, chief of staff John Kelly laid into Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson in harsh terms.
In an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Friday morning, Wilson alleged that “empty barrel” is a “racist term.” She didn’t explain why.
All of which made me curious: Where does the phrase “an empty barrel makes the most noise” come from? And is there any sort of racial component to those origins? Or to its current usage?
A search through the Internet shows that the origin of the line is somewhat fuzzy — although it is commonly credited to Plato in this form: “An empty vessel makes the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers.” (One interesting thing: There is no citation of what work Plato wrote those words in.)
In the 15th century, a translation of “The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man” done by John Lydgate contains a variation on that theme: “Or by som noyse in cómpleynyng/A voydë vessel, pype, or tonne.”
The phrase — or an iteration of it — was used twice in Shakespeare’s work. In “Henry V,” a character says this: “I never heard so loud a voice issue from such an empty heart. It’s true what they say: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.'”
Somewhat more obliquely, there’s this line from “King Lear”: “Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.”
Then there is physics. An empty glass — if you tap on it — makes a louder noise than a glass filled with water. (For a MUCH more pointy-headed analysis of the actual physics of all of this, read this.)
(Sidebar: No matter the origins, all of these phrases mean the same thing: The loudest people often know the least. Or in the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”)
Seeking to dig deeper, I reached out to Missouri University of Science and Technology professor Gerald Leonard Cohen, a widely recognized expert on etymology.
Cohen didn’t know the answer, but he added me to a listserve of fellow word experts — yes, this exists and is super cool — known as the American Dialect Society, who added a few more bits of context. Most notably, Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the chair of the New Words Committee within the ADS, pointed me to Plutarch’s “Morals,” which includes the line: “Talkative people … resemble empty vessels, and go about making much noise.”
No one in the ADS mentioned any racial ties to the word. And there’s nothing available to the amateur Internet sleuth that would suggest there is any sort of racial connotation tied to the phrase either. An email to Wilson’s office seeking an answer to why Wilson believed the term to be racist was not returned.
One theory: MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell devoted almost 20 minutes of his show on Thursday night to Kelly, Wilson and “empty barrel.” O’Donnell suggested that due to Kelly’s boyhood in a Boston neighborhood that was still largely segregated, his choice of words to describe Wilson was intentionally “dehumaniz(ing)” to the congresswoman.
“She was nothing but an empty barrel to him,” said O’Donnell. “He refused to give her the dignity of a name.”
That feels like a stretch based on what I’ve learned about the term “empty barrel.” It’s clear that Kelly meant to put Wilson down as a show horse, as someone who talks loudly but does nothing. That put-down felt decidedly out of place amid Kelly’s plea to keep politics out of the loss of a soldier’s life. But, as far as I can tell, it’s wrong to call what Kelly said racist.
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