lies, statistics, and Charles Dilke?

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Jun 9 11:47:21 UTC 2008

Though Mark Twain attributed the words on three degrees of lies to Benjamin
Disraeli, the quotation has not been found in Disraeli's works, nor in usage by
anyone as early as Disraeli's lifetime (d. 1881). Many other attributions have
been claimed--including members of parliament mostly well acquainted with one
another and journalists and economists who wrote about parliament--but none so
far is secure. The three earliest known uses were all recorded in October 1891.
Two are attributed to Charles Wentworth Dilke The ads-l archive
has many other relevant quotations (Fred Shapiro cited the Oct. 10 one), as does
a website by Peter A. Lee (who cited the Oct. 19 one).

Here are those three:
_Notes & Queries_ 10 Oct. 288  DEGREES OF FALSEHOOD. -- Who was it who
said, "There are three degrees of falsehood: the first is a fib, the second is
a lie, and then come statistics"?  ST. SWITHIN

Sir Charles Dilke [1843-1911] was saying the other day that false statements
might be arranged according to their degree under three heads, fibs, lies,
lies, statistics, and Charles Dilke?
statistics. The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Monday, October 19 1891

The Derby Mercury (Derby, England), October 21, 1891; Issue 9223
A mass meeting of the slate quarry-men of Festiniog [Ffestiniog, Wales] was held
Wednesday night [Oct. 14] to protest against certain dismissals from one of the
quarries....He [Dilke] observed that the speeches of the Bishops on the
disestablishment question reminded him that there were three degrees of
untruth--a fib, a lie, and statistics (Laughter)

It is remarkable that Dilke is the earliest known individual to use the phrase,
except in the question by "St. Swithin," so Dilke is, at least, a candidate for
the coiner. "St. Swithin" was a pseudonym used by Mrs. Eliza Gutch, according to
Folk-Lore 41 (1930) 301 and 63 (1952); her address: Holgate Lodge, York.

By a curious coincidence, Notes & Queries was owned by...Charles Dilke.
Dilke occasionally contributed. "His contributions were generally submitted
under a pseudonym or simply under the initial 'D'." This according to David
Nicholls, _The Lost Prime Minister: A Life of Sir Charles Dilke_ (1995) page 38.
But, even if he coined it, he would not necessarily write in to claim it. And
Dilke's fame receeded. Many had thought Dilke would become Prime
Minister--among them Disraeli!--but a scandal, or charge of scandal, ended his
prospects. Nicholls' biography tells this story well, both the scandal
(involving politics and sex; though he may have been innocent of these charges,
his other affairs complicated his defense) and Dilke's accomplishments,
including the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885. The latter becomes
interesting when one considers Leonard Courtney's 1895 use of the phrase,
attributed, in a future, fictional voting setting, to "the Wise
Statesman"--arguably more plausibly Courtney's ally Dilke than the deceased
conservative Disraeli. (I think Prof. Nicholls [private communication] and I
independently arrived at similar conclusions.)

Robert Giffen (and cf. e.g. W.D. Gainsford) claimed that the phrase about lies
was a modification ("lately been adapted," as of 1892) of an earlier phrase
about three classes of bad court witnesses: liar, damned liar, and expert; this
has been traced back, so far, to 1885 (Thomas Henry Huxley). (Several different
London judges have been suggested as that coiner.) Some early uses of the
statistics phrase also use the singular, fib and lie. Again, if these claims
are approximately accurate, the statistics phrase might well be after
Disraeli's lifetime.

I checked some of Dilke's writings (listed in Nicholls' biography) but didn't
notice an earlier use. But I haven't located a copy of A Radical Programme, a
1890 pamphlet; the serialized earlier version does quote Augustine on lies and
mentions the disestablishment debate; possibly the revised pamphlet version
is worth a look. Dilke's papers are in the British Library.

Though I think less likely than Dilke, another candidate is mentioned, though
late, in 1921:
Years ago before I [H.G.P. Deans, writing in J. of Accountancy p. 31] came to
this country I used to be a very assiduous reader of the _Illustrated London
News_.... In those days James Payn, the novelist, used to conduct a more or
less witty column in that paper, and I remember his writing on one occasion
something which sank down into my mind so that I have never forgotten it. He
said in answer to a correspondent: "There are three degrees or classes of lies;
there are lies, damned lies and statistics."
Payn did write "Our Note Book" from 1888 to 1898, if I recall correctly. I made
only a hasty look (and a volume was missing) but found nothing relevant.

So, at least for today, Dilke is my guess.

Stephen Goranson

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