The Grammarphobia Blog

Quote magnets

Q: I enjoyed hearing Pat discuss quote magnets last month on WNYC. I have a favorite Mark Twain quote, and I’d like to know whether it’s genuine: “If you always tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

A: We can’t find any evidence that Mark Twain ever wrote this. We can’t find it in any of his works, and the Internet websites that say he wrote it don’t say where.

If you can’t look something up to verify it at the source, it’s probably not true. And as Pat said on that WNYC program, Twain never said a lot of the things attributed to him.

In fact, Twain is a good example of a quotation magnet, a term coined by Fred Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations, for people often credited with saying things they never said.

When a quote is catchy but of unknown or obscure origin, it tends to attach itself to some famous person, like Twain, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Lincoln, or Dorothy Parker.

In an article in the July-August 2011 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Shapiro calls Twain “the great American quotation magnet” because “any folksy or mildly satiric line tends to be pinned on him.”

The quote you mention is found in many different versions and has been attributed to more than one person, which leads us to think that it should be chalked up to that great fount of platitudes, Anonymous.

We found an early version—“If you always tell the truth, you will never have to fix up excuses”—among a list of anonymous “Ironical Ifs” printed in the Bay City (Michigan) Times-Press on Nov. 19, 1898. The same list was reprinted the following year in the Muskegon (Michigan) Chronicle.

Twain was alive and kicking then and was wildly popular. If those newspapers had been quoting him, they no doubt would have said so.

Over the years, the quotation morphed into many different forms. One version showed up in an African-American newspaper, the Negro Star, of Wichita, Kansas, on Feb. 8, 1952.

In an opinion column devoted to the importance of accuracy, the writer, Ruth Taylor, quoted “a machinist friend” of hers as saying, “If you always tell the truth, then you never have to remember what you said before.”

Similar versions of the quote have been posthumously attributed to Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives, who died in 1961.

According to a United Press International dispatch that ran in the Chicago Tribune in July 1967, Rayburn “was fond of saying: ‘If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.’ ”

And in 1978, the Washingtonian magazine quoted Rayburn as saying, “Son, always tell the truth. Then you’ll never have to remember what you said the last time.”

George McGovern apparently made a similar observation. In a New Yorker article in May 1972, when McGovern was running for president, Shirley MacLaine is quoted as saying that McGovern “never gets tired.”

“I asked him how he did it,” MacLaine says, “and he told me that the secret is telling the truth. If you always tell the truth you don’t have to use up energy trying to remember what you said in other places.”

Yet another version appears in David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1982). In Act Two, the character Roma is giving advice on how to talk to the police: “Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.”

Yet other versions appear on the Internet, some attributed to Twain, some to Rayburn, and some to “legend.” Versions differ, to the effect that if you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember “your words,” or “what you said,” or “your lies.”

As for Twain, he did write, “When in doubt, tell the truth,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations. The quote is from Following the Equator, chapter 2, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar” (1897).

If Twain was the “great American quotation magnet,” then Churchill was the great British one. The tendency for wisecracks to attach themselves to Churchill is so common that it’s been given a name of its own: “Churchillian drift.”

As Pat mentioned on the program, Lady Astor supposedly told Churchill at a dinner party, “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill’s alleged reply: “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

According to legend that exchange took place in the 1920s, but Shapiro has traced it to a joke line from a 1900 edition of The Chicago Tribune.

Similarly, there’s no truth to the old story about someone who wanted to “fix” one of Churchill’s sentences because it ended with a preposition.

There are many versions of what Churchill is supposed to have written in a marginal note. The most common: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

While we’re at it, Churchill never described Britain and the United States as “two nations divided by a common language.” We’ve written about these last two legends in our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

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