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What Does "Read My Lips" Mean?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom "read my lips" is an imperative statement demanding or requesting that listeners pay attention to the meaning of the words that the speaker is saying. The phrase is most commonly used on its own, where somebody who says “read my lips,” really wants to drive home a point to an audience. The phrase is commonly followed up with a clear, short statement that aptly demonstrates the speaker’s main point.

As one of the more concrete idioms of English language, the phrase, “read my lips,” uses a fairly literal meaning. When someone reads someone’s lips, they are looking at the way that the mouth moves to figure out what words are being said. This is a primary way for those who are deaf to understand way speakers say.

The underlying meaning for the phrase, “read my lips,” as it is said to those who can hear, goes this way: by simultaneously hearing the words and reading the person slips, the listener will assumedly get the information twice as well. This is why people use the phrase to ask someone to follow what they’re saying closely. The use of this phrase is often seen as somewhat imperial or condescending, since it implies that the listener is not paying careful enough attention. It can also be taken as a promise, where the speaker is assuring the listener that he or she really means what he or she is saying.

In recent times, this old idiomatic phrase was revived by American Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush in a campaign speech regarding taxation. This full use of the phrase was, “read my lips: no new taxes.” The phrase was subsequently taken up as a mantle by antitax activists, and also treated with derision by others. According to media reports, the president later did raise some taxes, which delegitimized his use of the phrase.

The English lexicon includes several phrases that have a similar meaning as “read my lips.” Another way to say this would be, “Let’s make this clear,” or “Get this straight.” In general, the word “straight” refers to clarity of expression, where English speakers may talk about getting an issue “straight” or commonly understanding the fact involved in a matter. Alternately, an English speaker might say, “I really mean it,” or use some other more concrete expression of assurance.

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Discussion Comments

By Inaventu — On Apr 07, 2014

I think ultimate statements like "read my lips" can backfire on a person, though. If I remember correctly, George H. W. Bush actually ended up introducing several new taxes once he was elected to office. His campaign words came back to haunt him, since his infamous "read my lips" soundbite sounded so definite and final.

People may want to avoid using such expressions as "read my lips" unless they are completely and utterly convinced their statement is clear and immutable. Many people take strong stances on an issue and find themselves having to modify those stances once new facts emerge or old facts are challenged.

By Cageybird — On Apr 07, 2014

I've always translated "read my lips" as a statement of absolute truth. The speaker wants no ambiguity or confusion. That's why it's usually a short, direct statement: "Read my lips: I'm not going to that party." or "Read my lips: you're fired!". I've usually heard people say it after a few attempts to be more diplomatic. When others try to question the statement or look for wiggle room, the response escalates to "read my lips".

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