Friday, May 12, 2017

What "Don't Let Your Mouth Write Checks Your Ass Can’t Cash” Means (online excerpts & examples)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part pancocojams series on the saying "Don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can’t cash” and similarly worded "Don't let your mouth" sayings.

Part I provides definitions and examples of this saying.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II showcases the 1991 track "Don't Let Your Mouth Write A Check That Your Ass Can't Cash" by the Hip Hop group Stetsasonic.

The content of this post is presented for linguistic and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

I read the saying that Trump's "let his mouth write checks that his ass can't cash" in a political twitter thread today. I've read that saying before, although I've never used it myself nor have I ever heard anyone say this. But reading that saying today got me wondering where it came from and how old it is.

Here's what I found out:
The saying "Don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can’t cash” and similarly worded "Don't let your mouth" sayings appears to be considered a Southern American saying (i.e. Southern region of the United States) or an old time African American saying.

Both of these attributions may be true.

"Talking out the side of your neck" is a similar, but not completely equivalent contemporary saying. Click
What "Talkin' Out The Side Of Your Neck" Means & Cameo's 1984 Funk Record With That Title" for a pancocojams series about that saying.

These quotes are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.
Excerpt #1:
"Bring it back! Older, Odder Slang Terms
... Old, odd, vintage things people said - and should say now!

Alligator mouth - [1920s+] an inclination to boast, bluster, or threaten; a person so inclined. Often contrasted with hummingbird ass or similar phrases

1922 in S. Smith Gumps22: “You publish that, you pen pusher with the mouth of an alligator and the brain of a minnow.”

1961 Peacock Valhalla 21: “Don’t let your alligator mouth overload your canary ass.”

A fellow who talks big but appears to lack courage is said to have an alligator mouth and a canary ass.

Lighter, J.E..Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: Volume I, A-G. Random House, NY 1994"

Excerpt #2:
Barry Popik, Entry from February 10, 2010
“Don’t let your mouth write checks your body can’t cash”

"Don’t let your mouth write a check (or “checks") your body (or “ass") can’t cash” has been used in black English since at least the 1960s. Comedian Flip Wilson (1933-1998) used the line on television while performing in drag as the character “Geraldine.” However, a 1978 interview with Lou Rawls stating that he heard the phrase from his mother (see below) probably indicates that Flip Wilson wasn’t the first to use it.

The saying (recorded in print since at least 1966) means that one shouldn’t run one’s mouth, or one’s body/ass/behind might not be able to back it up.


Google Books
Norwood By Charles Portis
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
Pg. 184:
“Don’t let your mouth write a check that your ass can’t cash, son.”*

19 January 1972, Eugene (OR) Register-Guard, “Should City Officials Redly Jump Into Things This Way?” by Don Floyd, pg. B1, col. 3:
Quoting comedian Flip Wilson, Kelly said the venture materialized as a result of “letting your mouth write a check your body can’t cash.”


Google Books
2 March 1978, Jet magazine, “Lou Rawls Won’t Let Fame Spoil Him Again” by Bob Lucas, pg. 61, col. 1:
“There were those old ‘mother wit’ sayings she used to tell me, like, ‘Don’t let your mouth write a check your behind can’t cash.’ And when she would punish me: ‘I paid the cost to be the boss.’”

Google Books
Runnin’ Down Some Lines: The language and culture of Black teenagers
By Edith A. Folb
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Pg. 44:
Don‘t let your mouth overload your ass or Don ‘t let your mouth write a check your ass can’t cash refers to provocative talk, talk that can often lead to a fight."...
*I'm not familiar with this book, but in this quote the referent "son" may be a somewhat veiled form of criticism that belittles and otherwise shows disrespect for a man who the commenter believes is saying or doing something foolish or wrong, or who was a part of some challenge (such as a game or an argument) that the commenter believes he has won. A man or woman who calls a man "son" (who isn't actually their son) may be asserting his or her authority & superiority over that man by showing fake paternalism or maternalism, i.e. it's part of a parent's role to redirect or "school" their son when he does or says something wrong or foolish. Given this definition, people can call someone "son" who is their same age or even younger.

A person might use the word "boy" in these sentences instead of the word "son". However, when used to refer to Black men, "boy" has a long negative history. Also, commenters might prefer to use "son" instead of "boy" because "son" can falsely imply that the person using it has the man's well-being at heart when he or she makes a point of correcting him.

I don't think that there is an equivalent usage for "daughter".

Exerpt #3:
From 17 Southern Mom-isms That Everyone Should Know
by Christina Stumbau, 27 May 2015
"You know we love us some Southern mamas and their Southern true-isms. If you were lucky enough to grow up Southern, you've probably heard all of these bits of wisdom! And if you are anything like us, sometimes when mama used one of these, we were confused. It wasn't until adulthood that we fully understood the meaning of these gems.


15. "Don't let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird butt."

Don't talk the big talk if you can't back it up."...

Excerpt #4
What exactly does "Don't Let Your Mouth Write A Check That Your A** Can't Cash" mean?
"Best Answer:
don't say things that you can't back up or things that might get your @ss kicked
by ?, 2010

"Dont talk the talk if you can't walk the walk.

Don't make promises (or threats) that you can't deliver."
by Bilbo, 2010

Excerpt #5
Your mouth is writing checks your ass can't cash
"Your mouth is writing checks your ass can't cash," is something TV Dr. Phil McGraw's father said to him as a boy when he would voice wild plans or notions. It means that talk is cheap relative to performance, or that promising something and delivering on it are two different things. A phrase similar in meaning is "Money talks, bullshit walks."

"I'm going to get a job selling fuzzy dice door-to-door. I'll be rich!"

"Boy, your mouth is writing checks your ass can't cash."
#plans#schemes#notions#ideas#dreams#grandiosity#realistic#unrealistic#idealistic#promise#performance#outcome#obligation#talk's cheap#competence#experience#empty promise#mouthing
by al-in-chgo March 13, 2010
The bold and italic fonts were used by this commenter in these examples.

Excerpt #6:

What does the phrase "Your mouth is writing a check that the rest of your body can't cash" mean?


Marc Bodnick, seen 2000+ movies
Answered Jun 7, 2010
I don't think this is exactly how this line is usually worded.

The most famous version of this line was in the film Top Gun, when Stinger (the aircraft carrier commander) tells Maverick, "Son*, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash." Meaning: that Maverick is overconfident about his flying skills and taking risks that will likely result in him getting hurt / killed in a plane crash.

What the line means generally: someone is warning you that you are making verbal commitments / promises / threats that you can't physically deliver on.


Phillip Remaker,
Nov 7, 2014
In financial terms, a check is a written draft which promises to pay money to the holder from some account. The check itself is worthless unless there are funds in the account which allow the holder of the check to collect the promised money.

A threat, boast, or promise made verbally is the metaphorical equivalent of writing a check.

The resulting challenge of "Don't let your mouth write a check that your ass can't cash" is an expression of doubt that the speaker possesses the resources/skill/bravery/chutzpah etc to make good on that verbal promise (what your "body" or "ass" can deliver), in much the same way that one doubts the negotiability of a check from a deadbeat."
*The use of the referent "son" in this example is probably also meant to belittle the man who is being addressed. Read the comment I wrote after Example #2.

This concludes Part I of this two part series.

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