In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the surprising origins of that ‘a lie is halfway round the world …’ quotation
‘A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.’ The line well-known, and has itself made its way round probably more than half the world since it was first uttered. But who first uttered it?
Many people (and quite a few quotations websites) will respond, no doubt, ‘Winston Churchill.’ But Winston Churchill is, along like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, part of the triumvirate of go-to attributionists when it comes to allocating witty lines and funny quips. Indeed, the great quotation-researcher Nigel Rees even coined a term for the habit that compilers of books of quotations have, of attributing all sorts of lines to Winston Churchill: ‘Churchillian drift’. All roads lead to the great UK Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate (for Literature, we should remember, not Peace).
But in actual fact, the observation that ‘a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’, whilst often attributed to him, did not originate with Churchill. Indeed, we have to go back quite a bit before 1874, and Churchill’s year of birth, to find the earliest instance of this line.
Indeed, all the way back to ancient Rome. To the poet Virgil.
Okay, Virgil didn’t write the bit about putting boots on. But what he did write something close to the spirit of the quotation we’re considering here. In his epic poem the Aeneid, in book IV, line 174, Virgil wrote:
Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum.
To translate: ‘Rumour, than whom no other evil thing is faster.’ (Curiously, my copy of Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford Quick Reference), edited by Jennifer Speake, has Virgil’s Latin as ‘Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius alium’, an apparent mistake which has been repeated on several quotations websites since; it really is true that rumour, or at least error, can get halfway round the world pretty quickly, especially in the modern age of the internet. I’m happy to have my own ignorance corrected on this point though.)
However, although Virgil’s line expresses the same sentiment, it’s clearly not identical to the much-quoted line. For instance, there’s no mention of boots, let alone the truth having a pair of them on. For that part, unsurprisingly, we need to come forward in time.
In 1859, we find the proverb well and truly in print in recognisable form. The preacher C. H. Spurgeon quoted it in one of his sermons:
If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly; it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb, ‘A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’
As the prefatory remark by Spurgeon make clear, however, the line was a familiar proverb when he used it, so we cannot call him the originator.
Spurgeon was British, but to me the expression has always sounded as though it originated in the United States, perhaps because of the pragmatism of the idea of truth putting ‘boots’ on (recalling, among other things, the idea of cowboys ‘dying with their boots on’).
And sure enough, in the Portland Gazette on 5 September 1820, the following line appeared: ‘Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.’ I am indebted to Fred Shapiro at the Freakonomics website for drawing my attention to this early usage of the phrase.
‘Falsehood’ and ‘lie’ are pretty much synonymous, of course, and it appears that the sentiment expressed by Virgil has been re-expressed, and slightly recast, by a whole host of writers, preachers, and journalists ever since, although the attributions to Winston Churchill appear to be without foundation. As so often with these things, Jonathan Swift had provided an early example in English, back in The Examiner in 1710:
Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth, may spread a thousand without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect: like a man, who has thought of a good repartee, when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who has found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.
As so often with these things, Swift put it wisely and wittily, even if his version isn’t as snappy and memorable as that later version, of American origin, ‘a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.