fib, lie, statistics, and Charles Dilke

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sat Apr 25 11:03:43 UTC 2009

The four earliest known uses of the saying about three degrees of
falsehood--fib, lie, and statistics--are from 1891.* Two of them are
unattributed and two are attributed to Charles Dilke. So far, it appears that,
as Robert Giffen claimed in 1892 (Economic Journal 2 (6) (1892), 209-238, 209),
this was adapted from a saying about three types of unreliable court witnesses.
So far, all of this is attested later than the death of Benjamin Disraeli
(1881), the statesman Mark Twain supposed first made the remark. Here is some
additional indication that the phrase originator may have been the statesman
Charles Dilke. Disraeli knew Dilke and predicted he would become Prime
Minister; but charges of adultery changed Dilke's prospects. Dilke's fame

E.R.L. {Elgin Ralston Lovell] Gould, an American statistician, testified in
London to the Royal Commission on Labour. Many of the leading statisticians and
economists were involved. Dilke and Giffen were statisticians. On 2 Dec 1892
Leonard Courtney asked the questions. Courtney in 1895 (The National Review
[London] 26 (1895) 21-26 at page 25) attributed this saying to "the Wise
Statesman," who, I previously suggested, might be Dilke. Gould's response
(#6511) in the Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Royal Commission on Labour
(Sitting as a Whole) page 444 remarked of a legislative case in which
"statistical accuracy would be subordinated to party ends" and that "I think
perhaps it was that state of affairs...and perhaps the extent to which it
prevailed with us which led one of your celebrated English statesman at one
time to say that there were three degrees of untruth--a fib, a lie, and

Gould, later the same day, in response to economist Prof. Alfred Marshall, said
(response 6743, p, 458): "As to the three orders of untruth, a fib, a lie and
statistics, do you think that public opinion is getting to recognize that there
are statistics which do belong to that class?"

Now, what does this have to do with Charles Dilke? Well, Gould also wrote the

"Sir Charles Dilke in one sense was right when he said, 'There are three
degrees of untruth, -- a fib, a lie, and statistics ...'"
Elgin Ralston Lovell Gould, The Temperance Problem: Past and Future, New York,
1894 reprinted from The Forum, Nov. 1894), Page 15

So I propose that the saying should be attributed to Charles Dilke.

Stephen Goranson

*Letter written June 8, 1891, published June 13, 1891,  from T[homas] Mackay,
The National Observer p.93(-94):
[To the Editor of _The National Observer_]
London, 8th June, 1891
Sir,--It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of
falsehood: the first is a 'fib,' the second is a downright lie, and the third
and most aggravated is statistics. It is on statistics and on the absence of
statistics that the advocate of national pensions relies.....

_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, and
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)

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list