The Magazine

Bastard Wit

Joseph Bottum, in search of the right(-speaking) man

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The angry man at the town-council meeting snarled, “As Harry Truman put it, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ ” “No,” answered his tension-easing neighbor, “that was Mark Twain. You remember, the guy who also said, ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’—and he should have been talking about the weather we get around here.” Everybody laughed, and the council moved on to water rates.

Painting of Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman sitting together

Except, of course, that Harry Truman didn’t coin that phrase about lying statistics, and Mark Twain only quoted it, attributing the line in 1906 to Benjamin Disraeli because he thought Leonard Courtney had said in 1895 that Disraeli had come up with it before he died in 1881, although, in truth, Disraeli didn’t say it, and Courtney never said he did. At that point, the trail runs cold, and the origin of the phrase fades into the mists of anonymity. 

At a guess, someone in London around 1875 made a joke about escalating falsehoods. I picture him as a lawyer, for some reason—a punster, probably, with a shyly sly sense of humor. Certainly, by 1885, Thomas Huxley was calling classes of legal witnesses “liars, d—d liars, and experts,” as though the phrase were well known. By the 1890s, ordinary people had picked it up, sanded it off a little, repurposed it, and left us with the completed phrase about statistics.

The only trouble was that it lacked ascription. It still needed the oomph, the weight, that comes with authority. And so Mark Twain gets the line because he did, in fact, quote it and because—well, because it’s funny and he’s Mark Twain, author of funny lines. Give a man a reputation for comedy (as John Randolph complained in the early 1800s, after hearing jokes he never told repeated and ascribed to him) and half the bastard wit of the nation gets fathered upon him.

Still, it’s a curious question why some people collect such lines. Anyone can gain a mistaken sourcing. (Neither Edmund Burke nor Alexis de Tocqueville said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing,” however much the Internet’s innumerable quotation sites think they did.) But why is Harry Truman a magnet for misattribution? At least Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw—owners, as near as I can tell, of the current land-speed record for wrongful ascription—had reputations as witty conversationalists. But no one ever thought of Truman as a wordsmith. Or Otto von Bismarck, for that matter, although he’s high in the ranks of those paying child support for bastard lines, along with Confucius, Jonathan Swift, Albert Einstein, and Samuel Goldwyn.

In fact, when we hear something attributed to these figures, we should remember that the Law of Perfection applies to quips, as it does to everything in life: When something is too good to be true, mistrust is trustworthy.

Oh, I’m willing to believe that Oscar Wilde actually did announce to an American customs officer, “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” and even that he told visitors to the hotel where he lay dying, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” What I don’t believe is that they’re genuine wisecracks. They sound too polished—too practiced and prepared—to be real quips, however much they get quoted as proof of Wilde’s quick wit.

Dorothy Parker has her share of these Wilde-like lines, up on the sophisticated end of attribution. (“Everything I’ve ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker,” George S. Kaufman is said to have moaned.) And down on the low end, there’s Yogi Berra, who apparently didn’t say, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” or (of a restaurant) “It’s so crowded nobody goes there.”

At least, he didn’t say them originally. After he retired from baseball, however, Berra made something of a career out of claiming his purported malapropisms and strained logicisms. “I really didn’t say everything I said,” he once complained, but by the end of the 1990s, he had published in book form nearly everything attributed to him. I’m certain he never actually said, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” if only because déjà vu isn’t the kind of phrase we’d find in the mouth of a Yankees catcher in the 1950s. But people said that Yogi Berra said it, and so eventually he did say it, just to please them.

If only we could go back in time and get Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman to do the same. All our attribution problems would be solved, and the good lines put where they belong.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers