Several years ago, Marlen Neumann of Bethesda penned a witty ditty about being "careful of the words you speak" because you never know "which ones you'll have to eat," and published it in Guide, a Christian inspirational magazine for children. Recently, there developed what Neumann now carefully refers to as "a very interesting circumstance."

To wit: She picked up a newspaper and read her four-line poem in the Ann Landers column, sent in by someone else!

Well.

Immediately, Neumann wrote Landers to say, among other things, that "I wrote it."

Landers graciously published her letter Sept. 11, and -- as outlined in today's Landers column -- the fun began, because it transpired that plenty of other people also either wrote much the same thing, or heard it from their mothers or saw it on a hash house wall during the War of the Roses. One reader said her great-grandmother, the daughter of a Cherokee Indian chief, taught her the poem in about 1915.

"It's absolutely fantastic," said Neumann. "I got a letter from Ann Landers saying she got 500 letters from people saying they wrote the same verse." Neumann said now she thinks that "the idea's in the culture. My husband said Churchill said something like it."

"We were just inundated," said Marcy Sugar, Landers's secretary. "Most people said they had seen it earlier, in the '40s or '50s or '60s, or that their grandmother had told it to them. Some said they had written it. We don't have any proof positive of the origins."

Neumann said she can't remember exactly what triggered her to write the poem, but that she did it as part of her membership in a writers group made up of Foreign Service wives; her husband, Robert G. Neumann, was ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and is now head of Mideast studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

"To my best knowledge, I never heard it till I dreamed it up," she said of the poem. "And I thought I was the only person who ever thought of it in just that way. I dreamed it up, I wrote it down, I took it to my writers group, I mailed it out and got rejection slips, and then Guide took it and I was delighted. And when I read it in Ann Landers's column I told her I was so flattered to see it. Little did I know that a lot of other people had had the same thoughts. I even, in my second letter to her, said I was perfectly ready to apologize to anyone who thought I had stolen their lines, which I didn't."

Ann Landers was unavailable for comment yesterday, but Sugar said that Neumann's second letter probably won't be published because "I think she {Landers} wants to let it rest."

Jeannette Johnson, the editor of Guide, said yesterday that Neumann "sent it to me as her original work and I bought first-time rights on it. ... I probably paid her $15 or $20." That was in 1986. Reflecting on the matter now, Johnson added with a chuckle that the idea behind the poem wasn't unique. "I think you could find it in the Bible if you looked hard enough."

The complete poem, as Neumann wrote it:

Be careful of the words you speak.

Make them soft and sweet.

You never know from day to day

Which ones you'll have to eat.

"I tried to make a rhyme with 'speak,' " recalled Neumann of her creative process, "and I couldn't figure anything with 'speak,' so I left the third line 'day.' I didn't like to let the first line end with 'say' because I thought it was weak, so I thought I'd just rhyme Lines 2 and 4." She likes things to rhyme, she said, "because I'm an old-fashioned person, I'm 75. I have written other poems, and have written stories."

One of them has to do with a character whose name she takes particular pleasure in having created:

Mrs. Raja-gopal-a-char-i-ar said to her son,

"What a pest you are.

"You frightened our goldfish with pictures of cats,

"You hid our phonebooks under my hats,

{"Although most Indian ladies don't wear hats," Neumann observes in an aside as she recites her poem over the telephone.}

"If you try that again," she said, and frowned,

"You'll wish you could sink into the ground."

Then she bent down and hugged him instead

"Because I love you, you rascal," she said.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss will write in claiming authorship.

In any case, Neumann has had a rich life, accompanying her husband around the world on his tours of duty as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (1966-73), Morocco (1973-76) and, for two brief months in 1981, Saudi Arabia. At a going-away party in his honor on April 27, 1981, the late attorney general and Watergate figure John Mitchell unleashed his own verse in tribute to Ambassador Neumann:

Here's to your tour in Araby,

May the good Lord go with thee.

When your task is done, back in Washington,

May the good Lord deliver thee.

As it happened, the ambassador's task was done very quickly. He was considered sympathetic to Arab countries, and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, outraged at his support for a hard line against Israel for its bombing of Beirut and of Iraq's nuclear power plant, fired him.

Undoubtedly, there's a poem in it.

Anyway, said Marlen Neumann the other day, "Now I'm saying, 'Be careful of the words you write/ They may come back to haunt and bite.' "

"And be careful," added editor Johnson, "who you sell them to and who you say wrote them. You don't know whose grandmother you're going to call forth, do you?"