Tongue Depressors

Great Moments in Shutting Your Piehole


The Roman Catholic monks most renowned for their tight lips are the Trappists, a sect that grew out of the Cistercian Order in the 17th century. At the time, monks at the abbey of LaTrappe in Normandy felt that the Cistercians had become too lax in their pursuit of the "desert solitude" needed for a close relationship with God, so they bolted. Today, there are about 175 Trappist monasteries worldwide, populated by about 2,500 monks and 1,800 nuns. Contrary to popular belief, these monastics don't have to take a vow of silence; they're merely encouraged to maintain "an atmosphere of silence" -meaning they can speak when it's functional, when it's part of a "spiritual exchange", or on special social occasions. Trappists aren't completely shut off from the rest of the world, either. In fact, they're well known for making a mean ale. Chimay, a favorite beer brand among moneyed hipsters, is brewed by Trappists in Belgium. (Image credit: Flickr user Michael Verhoef)


Apparently, phoning Guinness World Records is something monks don't think to do. How do we know this? Because the first person to set the "official" world record for Longest Vow of Silence was a college freshman from Haddonfield, N.J. Yes, Brett Banfe bit his tongue from August 31, 2000 to to September 5, 2001, in order to become a better listener and raise money for the child development program Head Start. You'll be glad to know that he broke his silence in a setting strictly adherent to the monastic impulse -in front of a scrum of TV cameras at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Times Square. He opened with a nice Shakespeare/Wink Martindale one-two punch: "'To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.' How's everybody doing today?"


Whether the story is apocryphal or true, it's worth retelling: During a 1956 speech for his campaign of de-Stalinization, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was asked by an unseen audience member why, as an advisor to the dictator, he had never stopped Stalin from committing his atrocities.  Khrushchev immediately lashed out, "Who said that?" The room grew quiet. Khrushchev repeated his query to more silence, waited a beat,. and then said, "Well, now you understand why."


In March 1986, the last place Romual Piecyk wanted to be was on the witness stand. Eighteen month prior, he'd been assaulted by two members of the Gambino mob family, including its boss, John Gotti. Piecyk knew that if he fingered the Teflon Don during testimony, his life -or whatever would've been left of it- wasn't going to be pleasant. (Threatening phone calls and mysteriously broken brakes served as helpful pre-trial hints.) So on the day he was to testify, Piecyk went AWOL. Where'd he turn up? At a Long Island hospital, undergoing elective shoulder surgery. When he was finally forced to take the stand four days later, he clung to ignorance. "To be perfectly honest," he said, "it was so long ago, I don't remember." The next morning, the front page of the New York Daily News screamed, "I FORGOTTI". Poor Piecyk even went beyond silence to later advocate on Gotti's behalf, saying that the media had unjustly painted the mob boss as a "human monster." In a show of deep appreciation, Gotti didn't have Piecyk whacked. And in a show of deep pity, the Queens district attorney's office declined to file perjury charges.


In 1952, legendary avant-garde composer John Cage wrote "4'33"," the most famous work of music to feature no music at all. The piece is precisely what it sounds like: four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. All you're supposed to hear are the clicks and shuffles that naturally occur within a song's duration. Since it's release, the silent composition has inspired a cover version by Frank Zappa, a tribute by John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and a scene in the film "Pootie Tang." But not until after Cage's death did his music publishing house, Edison Peters, decide to cash in on the royalties. Mike Batt of The Planets credited their 2003 track "A One Minute Silence" to Batt/Cage in what he called "a tongue-in-cheek dig at the John Cage piece." Edition Peters apparently didn't see the humor and sued for copyright infringement, demanding royalties for their late client. Ultimately, they reached a settlement, but future silence artists beware: Batt fought back by getting in on the game. He's now registered several other silent composition times, including four minutes and 32 seconds and four minutes and 34 seconds.


The article above appeared in the Jan - Feb 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Don't forget to feed your brain, subscribe to the magazine and visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!

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I've read that Buckminster Fuller took a voluntary vow of silence for something over a year as well. The story doesn't seem to show up on any reliable-looking sites, though; maybe it's apocryphal.
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I first had Chimay 2 years ago at a Christmas party for my friend's work. The bartender running the open bar offered it when I wanted to try something "different", and said that I was lucky because that stuff goes fast when he serves it. I can see why.
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