Lazy Mouths and Other Sayings
My Czech-English dictionary offers "you get nothing if you don't ask" as an equivalent for the saying's meaning. This equivalent, though, is not quite satisfactory since it changes the metaphor and is also far too agentive. The mouth, a likely requirement for asking a question, is totally left out, and there is far too clear a reference to a specific action (asking a question) and to an actor (you, the asker). The Czech version has no verb, which means that no one is actually doing anything, it is just an observation. Even when clearly directed toward someone, the Czech saying does not imply that the person is lazy, only their mouth. Presumably someone is there and the things are happening, but you get the idea that they are not necessarily responsible for the things that are happening. Slavic languages seem to have a lot of these "non-agentive" formations.
This saying's "unCzechness" is also surprising. If you walk around Brno, or just about anywhere else in the Czech Republic, you'll sooner or later realize that people keep to themselves in public. Czechs are some of the quietest people in public that I've ever met. Sometimes this is carried to a fault. For example, the reigning silence on public transportation is so thick that it can be unnerving at times. Even something as simple as saying "Excuse me" when you are exiting the tram is often dismissed in favor of sliding behind or around the person; this usually results in pushing or shoving but is apparently regarded by many people as preferable to opening their mouth. It is most important to blend in—while the squeaky wheel may get the grease, Czechs would rather not be the squeaky wheel. Perhaps such wheels are annoying, or perhaps that saying would imply that they're making something else operate (god forbid that you might be a contributing member of society), which is against the Czech traditions of individualism and inadequacy.* If you were raised here by Czech parents, this ability to blend in, at least in public situations, would have been deeply socialized and ingrained. As one Czech writer and humorist put it, "This is done by persistent coaching from parents and teachers, which entails frequent repetition of a simple command: 'Don't you dare make an asshole of yourself or your family (group, club, town, nation, etc.)'."** So, whether they have lazy mouths or not, an initial Czech response in public situations is to keep one's mouth shut rather than to open it.
At various times I can be an incredible procrastinator, but I usually get over it in the long run. Part of my work is to interview people about music and, as you can certainly imagine, it's not very easy to do if your mouth is lazy. But perhaps my mouth will be more active in the future. I hope this saying works well as a new mantra because it could really help.
*Benjamin Kuras, Czechs and Balances (Prague: Baronet, 1996), pp. 18-20, discusses the Czech "Wisdom of Inadequacy," which is generally a good thing, but shouldn't be taken to extremes.
**Ibid., p. 20. The saying in my family, though not coming through any Czech heritage, was that it is better to keep one's mouth shut and have people believe you a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. The obvious way around all these impediments is, of course, to start a blog.
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