Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Robert J. Hanlon? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: Misquotations and misattributions are prevalent online, but people who are presenting this faulty information are rarely lying deliberately. Instead, they are naively repeating misinformation they have encountered in the past. The famous English lexicographer Samuel Johnson once said something pertinent which contrasted “carelessness about truth” versus “intentional lying”. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Reply from Quote Investigator: Biographer James Boswell published “The Life of Samuel Johnson” in 1791. Boswell recounted an episode from 1778 during which Johnson spoke to a hostess about the need to educate children to scrupulously avoid lying. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, Author: James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Diary Date: 1778, Start Page 189 and 190, Printed by Henry … Continue reading
Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness:
I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. “Accustom your children (said he) constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.”
BOSWELL. “It may come to the door; and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened.”
Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, “Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching.”
JOHNSON: “Well, Madam, and you ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.”
Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
A separate Quote Investigator article (which is available here) explores a thematically related expression: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.
Image Notes: Illustration depicting a large number of signs displaying the words LIE and TRUTH from geralt at Pixabay.
Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Scott Baker whose tweet led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Baker noted that the quotation under examination appeared in James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. Thanks also to Jay Lund, Jane Bella, Denise Kuhn, and Bryan Fillmer who participated in the tweet thread.