Mark Twain? Jonathan Swift? Thomas Francklin? Fisher Ames? Thomas Jefferson? John Randolph? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Winston Churchill? Terry Pratchett? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: An insightful remark about the rapid transmission of lies is often attributed to Mark Twain. Here are two versions:
(1) A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.
(2) A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on
I have not found this statement in any of the books written by Twain; hence, I am skeptical of this ascription. Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: A version of this adage was attributed to Mark Twain in 1919, but Twain died in 1910. QI believes that this evidence of a linkage was not substantive. Details of the 1919 citation are given further below.
Metaphorical maxims about the speedy dissemination of lies and the much slower propagation of corrective truths have a very long history. The major literary figure Jonathan Swift wrote on this topic in “The Examiner” in 1710 although he did not mention shoes or boots. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…
The phrasing and figurative language used in these sayings have been evolving for more than three hundred years. In 1787 “falsehood” was reaching “every corner of the earth”. In 1820 a colorful version was circulating with lies flying from “Maine to Georgia” while truth was “pulling her boots on”. By 1834 “error” was running “half over the world” while truth was “putting on his boots”. In 1924 a lie was circling the globe while a truth was “lacing its shoes on”.
Top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake identified the passage by Swift listed above and several other important items covered in this article.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1787 a collection of sermons by Thomas Francklin was published and a homily on vigilance included an instance of the saying in which “falsehood” reached “every corner of the earth”: 2
Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn, and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy…
In 1794 “The Confessions of James Baptiste Couteau” was published, and the author contended that the transmission of spoken lies was impeded, but once those lies were written in a pamphlet they circulated quickly and widely. Couteau referred to a line he ascribed to the prominent poet Alexander Pope: 3
Oral Calumny is tardy, feeble, and circumscribed, but give her paper wings, and, like a bird, she cleaves the clouds, and flies from province to province, from kingdom to kingdom, gives free circulation to imposition, and a solitary pamphlet, as the Poet Pope says of a love letter,
“Can waft a lie from Indus to the Pole.”
Lame Truth limps after too tardily to prevent the winged progress of her adversary.
Alexander Pope did write about the sentiments contained in a love letter in his poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, but Couteau misunderstood the verse which actually stated:
And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.
In 1808 an adage matching Swift’s was printed without ascription in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper column titled “Thoughts”: 4
“Falsehood,” says one, “flies, and truth comes limping after it.” If a lie be believed sometimes only for an hour, it has accomplished its purpose, and there is no further occasion for it.
In 1820 an article about a complicated court case included a maxim that referred to truth pulling on boots. Thus, the statement moved closer to the popular modern adages with shoes and boots. The expression was placed between quotation marks, but no attribution was given: 5
The public mind has been too much inflamed in this transaction, by misrepresentations—these the examination have materially corrected, but the influence of the corrective, does not extend as far as the injury of the falsehood: “for falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.”
In 1821 William Tudor who was the editor of the important U.S. literary publication “The North American Review” wrote an article in which he credited an instance of the remark to the statesman Fisher Ames: 6
…recollecting Mr. Ames’ remark, that “a Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots;”…
In 1831 an article in “Niles’ Weekly Register” of Baltimore, Maryland also credited Fisher Ames while using the word “falsehood” instead of “lie”: 7
It was said by Fisher Ames, that “falsehood proceeds from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling on his boots.”
In 1834 “The New-England Magazine” printed an instance with a different vocabulary: 8
…error will run half over the world while truth is putting on his boots to pursue her…
In 1835 the travel distance for a lie was measured in leagues: 9
We are gravely told that “a lie will travel many leagues, while truth is putting on his boots!”
In 1840 the luminary Thomas Jefferson implausibly received credit for an instance of the maxim: 10
Do not trust too much to the goodness of your cause; for, as Jefferson said, falsehood will travel over the country, while truth is pulling on its boots.
In 1844 an instance of the saying was attributed to a Virginian named John Randolph: 11
The distinguished John Randolph of Virginia used to say, that “a lie could travel from Maine to Georgia whilst truth was drawing on her boots.”
In 1846 “Brownson’s Quarterly Review” labeled the expression a Chinese proverb: 12
“Error,” says the Chinese proverb, “will travel over half the globe, while truth is pulling on her boots.”
In 1855 the popular London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon included an instance in a sermon and called it an old proverb. In 1859 the statement was reprinted in collection titled “Spurgeon’s Gems”: 13 14
If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly; it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb, ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’
In 1881 a modified saying was written in which boots were worn by “the lie” instead of “the truth”: 15
But the lie had its seven-league boots on a week ago, and here is the truth just rubbing its sleepy eyes and preparing to give it a lazy chase.
In 1919 the famous humorist Mark Twain was improbably credited with an instance of the adage: 16
Mark Twain once said that a lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on; and the statement is hard to contradict successfully.
In 1921 an instance using the word “lacing” was attributed to Mark Twain: 17
“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”—Mark Twain.
By 1924 an instance with “shoes” instead of “boots” was circulating: 18
Once fairly on its feet, a good substantial lie about a man in public life, will circle the globe while a truth is lacing its shoes on.—Alamosa (Colo.) Journal.
In 1948 Cordell Hull who was the Secretary of State during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt included a version with “breeches” in his memoirs: 19
A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.
In 1981 “The New York Times” published remarks made by foreign policy expert Ernest W. Lefever who implausibly attributed the saying to Winston Churchill: 20
“As Churchill said: ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.'”
In 1987 a version with “shoes” was placed in a collection titled “The Wit & Wisdom” of Mark Twain: 21
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
The popular fantasy author Terry Pratchett included the saying several times in his 2000 book “The Truth” which was part of the Discworld series. A character named Mr. Slant said the following: 22
People are easily confused, and here I speak as one who has spent centuries in courtrooms. Apparently, they say, a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on. What an obnoxious little phrase, don’t you think?
In 2009 Churchill quotation expert Richard M. Langworth wrote about a set of sayings that had been incorrectly ascribed to the statesman. The following passage included three examples: 23
Anyway, and for the record, all of these are NOT CHURCHILL (and I will not dignify them with quotemarks):
1. A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
2. A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
3. However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.
In conclusion, there exists a family of expressions contrasting the dissemination of lies and truths, and these adages have been evolving for more than 300 years. Jonathan Swift can properly be credited with the statement he wrote in 1710. Charles Haddon Spurgeon popularized the version he employed in a sermon in 1855, but he did not craft it. At this time, there is no substantive support for assigning the saying to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill.
Image Notes: Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas. Charles Haddon Spurgeon by Alexander Melville. Both images are details from paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, London accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of boots from Bluesnap on Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for sharing her research results. Also thanks to Barry Popik, Ralph Keyes, Fred R. Shapiro, Carl M Cannon, and Wikiquote for their examinations of this topic. Thanks to Jeffrey Guterman and Ivan Plis whose tweets about the attribution to Winston Churchill led QI to update the article with two additional citations. Thanks to Karl Brown who suggested adding a Terry Pratchett citation.)
Update History: On February 11, 2017 the 1948 citation was added. On October 8, 2017 citations in 1981 and 2009 that mentioned Churchill were added. On November 6, 2017 the 2000 citation for Terry Pratchett was added.
- 1710 November 2 to November 9, The Examiner, Number 15, (Article by Jonathan Swift), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Printed for John Morphew, near Stationers-Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1787, Sermons on Various Subjects, and Preached on Several Occasions by Thomas Francklin, Volume 3 of 3, Sermon XI: On Vigilance, Start Page 217, Quote Page 233, Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1794, The Confessions of James Baptiste Couteau: Citizen of France, Volume 1 of 2, Translated from French to English by Robert Jephson, Quote Page 23, Printed for J. Debrett, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1808 January 16, The Times, Number 6, Thoughts, Quote Page 23, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1820 September 5, The Portland Gazette, (Untitled article about the case of Lieut. Hobart), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1821, Miscellanies by William Tudor, The North American Review, Start Page 52, Quote Page 53, Published by Wells and Lilly, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1831 May 7, Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 40, (Untitled article), Quote Page 163, Column 2, Edited, Printed, and Published by H. Niles, Baltimore, Maryland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1834 April, The New-England Magazine, Volume 6, Literary Notices, (Book Review of “The Deist’s Immortality, and an Essay on Man’s Accountability for his Belief” By Lysander Spooner), Start Page 328, Quote Page 331, Printed and Published by J. T. Buckingham, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1835, A Review of the Lady Superior’s Reply to “Six Months in a Convent”: Being a Vindication of Miss Reed, Quote Page 8,Published by William Peirce and Webster & Southard, Boston, Massachusetts.(Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1840 October 5, Extra Globe, Whig Tactics, Start Page 314, Quote Page 315, Column 2, Published by Blair and Rives, Washington, D.C. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1844 April, The Millennial Harbinger, Letters from S. Y. H. to A. C., Number 11, (Date March 25, 1844), Start Page 186, Quote Page 188, Printed and Published by A Campbell, Bethany, Virginia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1846 January, Brownson’s Quarterly Review, Volume 3, Article IV, (Discussion of Methodist Quarterly Review for July 1845), Start Page 89, Quote Page 96, Published by Benjamin H. Greene, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1855, Sermons Delivered in Exeter Hall, Strand by Rev. C. H. Spurgeon (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), The New Park Street Pulpit: Joseph Attacked by the Archers: A Sermon Delivered April 1, 1855, Start Page 125, Quote Page 130, Published by Alabaster & Passmore, Finsbury Square, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1859, Spurgeon’s Gems; Being Brilliant Passages from the Discourses of the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), Quote Page 154 and 155, Published by Alabaster & Passmore, Finsbury, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1881 April 27, The Christian Union, Volume 23, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 396, Column 1, Brooklyn Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919 February, Standard Player Monthly, Volume 4, Number 2, Talks with Tuners by One of Them, Quote Page 9, Standard Pneumatic Action Company, New York City. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 February 24, Denver Post, Nubbins by Burris Jenkins (Editor of The Kansas City Post), Quote Page 22, Column 1, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1924 August 28, West Bend Journal, (Short item with acknowledgement to Alamosa Journal in Colorado), Quote Page 1, Column 4, West Bend, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1948, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull by Cordell Hull, Volume 1 of 2, Quote Page 220, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1981 June 7, New York Times, Lefever Says Critics Twisted His Record by Francis X. Clines (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 14, Column 1, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1987, The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain, Edited by Alex Ayres, Quote Page 139, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2001 (Copyright 2000), The Truth by Terry Pratchett, Discworld Series: 25, Quote Page 159, HarperTorch: An Imprint of HarperCollins, New York. (Hardcover edition 2000 from HarperCollins) (Verified with scans of 2001 paperback edition via Amazon Look Inside) ↩
- Website: Richard M. Langworth, Article title: “Quotes” Winston Churchill Never Said: A Few Additions, Article author: Richard M. Langworth, Date on website: June 19, 2009, Website description: Personal website of Richard M. Langworth who is a Senior Fellow, Hillsdale College Churchill Project, Writer and Historian, (Accessed richardlangworth.com on July 25, 2017) link ↩