Like all good and sentient Americans, I have been reading Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American,” and watching her Facebook Live and YouTube “History and Politics” talks, where she ties current events to their historical backgrounds and puts them in context.

Not only is Professor Richardson one of the most notable historians in the United States, her selfless public outreach during her career has made her one of the most important intellectuals in 21st century America. I’ve put links to her work for you in the blog post for this episode.

In a show about “fake news” a few weeks ago, Dr. Richardson mentioned that the quote “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes” is often attributed to Mark Twain. She correctly emphasized “attributed,” because no one knows whether Twain actually said it. Lots of people say that it originated with Twain, but that’s because, along with Churchill, Gandhi, and Einstein, he’s up there on the Mount Rushmore of Misquotation.

That’s right, there’s absolutely no evidence that Twain ever said this, much less coined it. Neither did: the poet, Edgar Allen Poe; the 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon; American founder Thomas Jefferson; John Randolph, a Congressman in the early 19th century; nor Terry Pratchett, the satirist and fantasy novelist.

I’ve even seen a version of this attributed to Winston Churchill which says, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” British Buzzkillers will recognize immediately that this is very unlikely because “pants” in British English means “underpants,” not trousers. And it’s unlikely that Churchill would have referred to underwear in public.

And I know that this is going to come as a great shock to all of you but, despite the mountain of internet memes and posts, there’s no evidence that Churchill ever said this.

Actually, the concept of lies moving faster than truth is fairly old. Perhaps the first person to analyze it in print was Jonathan Swift, the 17th/18th century Anglo-Irish essayist, satirist, and political writer. Swift was the editor of English political newspaper, The Examiner. In 1710 (125 years before Mark Twain was born), Swift wrote:

“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…”

Throughout the rest of the 18th century, the idea was whittled down to various versions of a lie flying like the wind while the truth lumbers behind on foot. It was written in sermons, used as a rejoinder to “fake news” being propagated and believed almost instantly, and as a warning to people that they should wait to hear the full story before believing the first thing they heard. (Not that that’s ever done any good.)

By the early 19th century, the idea had spread to the United States and, by 1820 (fifteen years before Twain was born), “the truth” was trying to pull on its boots before starting out after the lie. Various 19th century versions of this have “the truth” pulling on “her boots” or “lacing up her boots.” (Probably because, in classical artistic representation, “truth” often took a feminine form.)

At roughly the same time, people began referring to a lie travelling from “Maine to Georgia” while truth was still putting on its boots. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the eventual construction of the famous “Maine to Georgia” Appalachian hiking trail between 1921 and 1937, but there is doubtless an internet meme out there connecting the two.

The phrase kept getting printed and reprinted in the 19th century, and spread half-way around the world. Yes, by 1846, one British publication even called it a Chinese proverb (even though there’s no evidence of that).

Attributions to Twain started to appear in the years after his death in 1910, and I often wonder if any scholars out there have plotted the frequency of false Twain quote attributions after he died. My guess is that they occurred much more often after he was gone.

And once a saying or quote enters the Twain attribution range, it can fly anywhere and become attached to almost any notable historical figure. I’m surprised that I haven’t found it credited to Gandhi and Einstein, but perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough.

The person who has looked into this very extensively is Bonnie Taylor Blake, a scientist at the University of North Carolina who, as an avocation, examines the origins and life stories of urban legends, famous sayings and quotes, and writes about them on her blog and on Twitter. Links to her work are also on the blog post for this episode.

But I shouldn’t end the show without going back to the Jonathan Swift quote that is generally considered the original. If you remember, it’s full of early 18th century verbiage…

“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…”

It’s important, however, to note that, even before the phrase “fake news” had been invented, the main point of Swift’s observation was that these swift lies are also believed very quickly, and that’s where the damage is done. A 21st Century translation might be,

Once these lies are believed, if only for a short time, the damage has been done. A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes. By the time the truth catches up, it’s too late. The lie has become lore. And that’s what’s so worrying.

Oh, one more thing – let me get back to the scholar I referred to at the beginning of this show — Professor Heather Cox Richardson. Even during these days of travel restrictions placed upon us by the COVID virus, I still get to “meet” new people because of this show and in other on-line socializing. Practically every time I meet someone new, and they learn I’m an historian, they almost immediately reply with “oh, I love Heather Cox Richardson’s emails and videos. I’m learning so much, and she is helping me think much more carefully about American history.”

So, there you have it, Buzzkillers. Some truth is getting through. Those of us who are listening to Professor Richardson’s truths are half a world ahead of those who don’t listen to her. Make sure, therefore, click on the links to her work in our blog post for this episode.

Talk to you next week.

Dr. Heather Cox Richardson Links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/heathercoxrichardson/

YouTube: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/

Bonnie Taylor Blake Links:

Blog: https://btaylorblake.com/


Buzzkill Bookshelf

Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations

This reader-friendly volume contains more than 12,000 famous quotations, arranged alphabetically by author. It is unique in its focus on American quotations and its inclusion of items not only from literary and historical sources but also from popular culture, sports, computers, science, politics, law, and the social sciences. Anonymously authored items appear in sections devoted to folk songs, advertising slogans, television catchphrases, proverbs, and others.

For each quotation, a source and first date of use is cited. In many cases, new research for this book has uncovered an earlier date or a different author than had previously been understood. (It was Beatrice Kaufman, not Sophie Tucker, who exclaimed, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!” William Tecumseh Sherman wasn’t the originator of “War is hell!” It was Napoleon.) Numerous entries are enhanced with annotations to clarify meaning or context for the reader. These interesting annotations, along with extensive cross-references that identify related quotations and a large keyword index, will satisfy both the reader who seeks specific information and the curious browser who appreciates an amble through entertaining pages.

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