If What You Gave Me Last Was Tea, I Want Coffee. If It Was Coffee, I Want Tea

Abraham Lincoln? Traveler? John Randolph of Roanoke? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend when Abraham Lincoln was served a cup of unpalatable brew he made the following hilarious remark:

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

I have not been able to find a solid citation for this saying. Are these really the words of Old Abe?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quip known to QI appeared in January 1840 in the “Madison Courier” of Madison, Indiana. The speaker was an unidentified “distinguished citizen of North Carolina”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is said, that once, on an occasion when a distinguished citizen of North Carolina, was disgusted by the taste of some beverage or other which was placed before him at a public table to answer the place of coffee or tea, he exclaimed, ‘boy! if this is tea bring me coffee, and if it is coffee bring me tea.’

The same jocular item was disseminated in other newspapers in 1840 such as “The North-Carolina Standard” of Raleigh, North Carolina and “The Camden Journal” of South Carolina. 2 3

By 1852 the witticism had been assigned to a Congressman from Virginia with the moniker John Randolph of Roanoke. This ascription became common, but the supporting evidence was weak because Randolph had died many years earlier in 1833.

Special thanks to the fine researcher Barry Popik who located the January 1840 citation and the earliest citation crediting John Randolph. Popik’s webpage on this topic is located here.

By 1902 the remark had been re-assigned to the famous statesman Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865. Nowadays, this unlikely ascription has become prevalent. It is true that the joke was circulating while Lincoln was alive; thus, it was conceivable he employed it; however, QI has found no contemporaneous citations to support this possibility.

This entry presents a snapshot of what is known. The joke was initially linked to an unknown “distinguished citizen of North Carolina”, but the anecdote was prefaced with the locution “it is said” signaling that the tale was being relayed via indirect knowledge. Indeed, the scenario might have been concocted by an anonymous jokesmith. More may be learned by future researchers.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If What You Gave Me Last Was Tea, I Want Coffee. If It Was Coffee, I Want Tea


  1. 1840 January 18, Madison Courier, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Madison, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1840 February 12, The North-Carolina Standard, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1840 May 2, The Camden Journal, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 5, Camden, South Carolina. (Chronicling America)

A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes

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.

Continue reading A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes


  1. 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