Maxim: Figures don't lie, but liars do figure (1884 February 29)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Apr 10 01:25:56 UTC 2010

Figures don't lie, but liars do figure.

This remark is sometimes attributed to Carroll D. Wright who was a
prominent statistician, former U.S. Commissioner of Labor, and former
President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Wright did use a version of the phrase in 1889 at a convention;
however, the proverb appeared earlier in a newspaper in 1884 without
attribution. In addition, Wright called the second half of the proverb
a new saying when he used it, but did not suggest that he coined it.
Specifically in 1889 he said, 'The old saying is that "figures will
not lie," but a new saying is "liars will figure."'

The quote is also sometimes attributed to Charles H. Grosvenor, e.g.,
in the online Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations (ODAQ).
Grosvenor was a multi-term U.S. Representative from Ohio. ODAQ says
Grosvenor was referring to the process of predicting election outcomes
and that he was a famous forecaster of presidential elections, which
earned him the nickname "Old Figgers." No citation is given in the
online ODAQ.

At a banquet in 1910 James Tanner, a fellow political figure and
admirer of Grosvenor, uses the maxim while delivering a toast at a
banquet in the presence of Grosvenor. But Tanner does not credit him
with the proverb. Instead he says the phrase is an "old-time maxim, as
old as the ages." The earliest attribution of the phrase to Grosvenor
that I was able to locate occurs in the 1930s.

A message in the ADS archive in 2004 that appears to be from Barry
Popik notes the common undated attribution to Charles H. Grosvenor.
The post presents several fine citations with the earliest dated 1892.

The aphorism can be conveyed in many different ways, and I attempted
to allow for this variability while searching. For example, the first
part can use the following subphrases: figures won't lie, figures can
not lie, figures don't lie, figures do not lie, figures will not lie,
and figures would not lie. The second part can use the following
subphrases: liars do figure, liars will figure, liars can figure,
liars sometimes figure, and liars figure. And those are just a subset
of the possibilities. However, I was strict in requiring the four
terms that capture the wordplay: figures, lie, liars, and figure.

The oldest three citations I could locate occur in the years 1884 and
1888. No attributions are given in these early cites. In the first
instance the quotation follows other aphoristic remarks and prefaces a
story about successful and unsuccessful merchants.

Citation: 1884 February 29, Grand Forks Daily Herald, The Fire
Laddies: The Great Public Benefit, Page 1, Column 2, Grand Forks,
North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)

"Keep pushing, 'tis wiser than sitting aside, And sighing, and
waiting, and watching the tide; in life's earnest battle they only
prevail, Who daily march onward and never say fail."

Figures don't lie, but liars do figure. The continual complaining of
some merchants make everybody tired. If the chronic kickers will pay
more attention to their own business they might in time accomplish
something for themselves. but no, they complain about dull trade and
wonder at the grand success of the great sale of bankrupt stock now
going on at the St. Paul Store.

In the second citation in 1888 the quotation is spoken by Col. L. F.
Copeland during a speech attacking the ideas of the famous freethinker
Robert Ingersoll.

Citation: 1888 July 13, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach: Summer Training
School and Alliance Assembly: The Mistakes of Ingersoll Pointed Out by
Col Copeland, Page 2. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

Mathematics is an exact fact; figures don't lie, but liars sometimes figure.

In the third citation the maxim is used in an argument about free trade.

Citation: 1888 October 2, Sacramento Daily Record-Union, Page 2,
Column 3, Sacramento, California. (Chronicling America: Library of

It was a highly protective measure. The cry of free trade was a false
one, and was maliciously put forth by "the uncrowned king" and other
Republican leaders. Figures would not lie, but liars will figure, and
were doing so in this campaign.;words=lie+Figures+liars

On June 25th of 1889 the statistician Carroll D. Wright gave the
opening remarks at a Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of
Statistics of Labor. Two different versions of his remarks were
published, and I present excerpts from both below. Wright uses the
proverb in both versions. I think that the wording used in the
citation immediately below indicate that Wright was not the creator of
the aphorism. He says it is a "new saying", but this suggests that it
was already being disseminated.

Citation: [1889 June 25, date of opening remarks at  the convention]
1890, Joint Documents of the State of Michigan for the Year 1889:
Volume III Part I., Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and
Industrial Statistics Issued February 1 1890, Page 311, Darius D.
Thorp: State Printer and Binder, Lansing, Michigan.  (Google Books
full view)

Excerpt from the opening remarks of Carroll D. Wright:
The old saying is that "figures will not lie," but a new saying is
"liars will figure." It is our duty, as practical statisticians, to
prevent the liar from figuring; in other words, to prevent him from
perverting the truth, in the interest of some theory he wishes to
establish. We can only do this by being absolutely fair ourselves. But
the limitations of which I speak almost prevent fairness and justice
on the part of the statistician.

Citation: June 1889, American Statistical Association, Convention of
Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor, Page 283, Vol. 1, No.
6, Publication of the American Statistical Association.  (Google Books
full view)

Excerpt from the opening remarks of Carroll D. Wright:
It has been said that figures will not lie. It is equally true that
liars will figure. It is our duty to prevent liars from figuring in
the interest of any theory, by presenting original data fairly.

Newspaper coverage in Texas of the conference in 1889 did mention the
remarks of Wright and did quote him delivering the maxim.

Citation: 1889 July 12, San Antonio Daily Express, Page 2, Column 3,
San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

The national convention of the bureau of statistics of labor, which
met in Hartford last month, had for its object the collection of
facts, without reference to political or economical problems. … The
president in his opening address says truly that "figures do not lie,"
but he qualifies this by facetiously saying that "liars will figure."
That is the great trouble with statistics; liars and cranks will add,
subtract, divide and theorize.

Another 1889 instance of the quote appears in an article arguing about
sewer routes in California. The maxim is unattributed.

Citation: 1889 August 5, Los Angeles Times, A Strong Argument: Against
the Ballona Sewer Route, Page 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest
Historical Newspapers)

Statements are easily made; their value, however, depends upon the
reliability of the parties who make them. Figures don't lie, but liars
will figure. I challenge an investigation of the situation

In 1890 a missive to the Los Angeles Times credits an anonymous
"somebody" with the maxim.

Citation: 1890 February 17, Los Angeles Times, The Northern Citrus
Fake, Page 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest Historical

To the Editor of The Times. "Figures don't lie, but liars sometimes
figure," is the way somebody put it, and an article in the January
number of the new monthly, "California," published in San Francisco,
seems to verify the the maxim as amended.

Also in 1890 a Kansas paper prints the maxim as a freestanding
statement which it credits to the Dallas News.

Citation: 1890 October 24, Belleville Telescope, Page 7, Column 3,
Belleville, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)

Figures do not lie but liars sometimes figure. - Dallas News.

Jumping forward over several years of citations to 1895, one finds
that the attachment of the quote to Carroll D. Wright is strong.

Citation: 1895 January, The Inland Printer, Changes Wrought by the
Composing Machines by Hugh Wallace, Page 345, Maclean-Hunter Pub. Co.
(Google Books full view)

... forces belief in Carroll D. Wright's saying that "figures don't
lie, but liars will figure," ...

In 1898 a laudatory profile of Carroll D. Wright emphatically credits
him with originating the maxim.

Citation: 1898, Second Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor of the
State of New Hampshire: Volume IV, Labor Bureaus: Carroll Davidson
Wright, page 89, Arthur E. Clarke: Public Printer, Manchester, New
Hampshire. (Google Books full view)

Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor, United States Department of
Labor, Washington D.C ., who has just been honored with membership in
the Institute of France, and honorary membership in the Imperial
Russian Academy of Sciences, is one of the foremost statisticians of
the world. … It was he who originated the now famous and much
misquoted saying, "Figures do not lie, but liars figure."

I was unable to find an association between the maxim and Charles
Grosvenor until 1910 and at that point the connection is negative. The
citation occurs in a toast delivered by James Tanner, a politician and
former soldier, at a banquet. The cite provides weak evidence that
Grosvenor did not create the proverb. Tanner and Grosvenor were both
Union soldiers during the Civil War and later became political
figures. Tanner knew Grosvenor for years and sought out his political
advice regarding the prediction of election results.

At the banquet Grosvenor gave the first toast and Tanner gave the
fifth toast. Tanner referred to Grosvenor by his nickname, "Old
Figures" and then employed the maxim; however, he did not credit it to
Grosvenor. Instead, Tanner called it an "old-time maxim, as old as the
ages." At a ceremonial occasion it would natural to credit the creator
of a maxim, especially when using it in his presence. If Grosvenor was
the creator then Tanner was clearly unaware of this fact since Tanner
labels it "as old as the ages".

Citation: [1910 November 16 Banquet] 1913, Report of the Proceedings
of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, Fortieth Reunion:
Banquet: Fifth Toast: Comrade Tanner, Page 159, Press of the Chas. O.
Ebel Printing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view)

Excerpt from a toast by James Tanner:
I want the figures. I desire to hear from him we have known for many
years as 'Old Figures,' and when Grosvenor was silent, I felt that
defeat was sure. I did not, in coming to that conclusion, fail to
remember that the old-time maxim, as old as the ages, had been time
and again found true, that while figures can not lie, liars can
figure. I felt it was not safe to predict until Grosvenor had spoken,
and he being silent, I knew that Judgment Day had come.

The earliest attribution of the quote to Charles Grosvenor that I
could find appears in the 1930s.

Citation: Circa 1936, Modern Packaging, Page 92, Volume 10,
Morgan-Grampian Publ. Co. (Google Books snippet view only. Unverified.
May be inaccurate. Worldcat volume number ok. Date probes ok.)

"As old General Grosvenor, who knew as much about it as any man, since
it was his business, reflected: 'Figures won't lie, but liars will

In the 1940s the attribution to Grosvenor starts to appear in books of
quotations and proverbs.

Citation: Circa 1946, A World Treasury of Proverbs from Twenty-Five
Languages by Henry Davidoff, Page 248, Random House. (Google Books
snippet view only. Unverified. May be inaccurate. Worldcat date ok.
Date probes ok.)

Figures won't lie, but liars will figure. (C. H. Grosvenor)

Citation: Circa 1949, American Sayings: Famous Phrases, Slogans, and
Aphorisms by Henry Fitzwilliam Woods, Page 61, Duell, Sloan and
Pearce, New York. (Google Books snippet view only. Unverified. May be
inaccurate. Worldcat date ok. Date probes ok.)

"Figures won't lie, but liars will figure." Charles Henry Grosvenor (1833-1917)

While searching for predecessors I relaxed the requirement for the
presence of the four words: figures, lie, liars, and figure.  A prolix
conceptual antecedent in 1852 combines the phrase "figures won't lie"
with the idea that individuals who use statistics are liars. The
distrust of statistics has a long lineage that culminates in the
phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics".

Citation: 1852 August, The New Englander, The Sources of our
Population, Page 393, Volume 39, F. W. Northrop, New Haven.

The old saying, that "figures won't lie," is true, without doubt; and
the same may be said of letters, marks, and other signs of thought.
But the mode in which many use figures, in order to carry a point, has
sometimes tempted us to believe that the hasty remark of the Psalmist,
if paraphrased thus - "all men" - who deal in statistics "are liars,"
- is not far from the truth.

An antecedent in 1859 asserts that lies are inherent in figures and
facts themselves. In this citation the liar with a "gifted
imagination" is viewed positively. The quoted phrase in the cite below
is a variant of an earlier phrase: "nothing is so fallacious as
figures, except facts" that appears in 1846 or earlier.

Citation: 1859, The Princeton Text Book in Rhetoric by M. B. Hope,
Page 99, John T. Robinson, Princeton, New Jersey.

Unreal pictures, by a gifted imagination, often give a truer
impression in effect, than a literal description.
It has been said, not less justly, than wittily, that "nothing lies
like figures except facts."

An antecedent in 1869 moves closer to the form of the final maxim. It
uses the phrase "figures won't lie" and the word "liars"; however, the
liar is not externally identified. Rather, figures "are the greatest

Citation: 1869 November 20, The Week: United States, Page 2, Column 2,
Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The New York "World" has discovered, according to its own account, a
deficit of over forty millions in his calculations. What a horrible
satire it is to say that figures won't lie. They are the greatest
liars in the modern world.

I hope these three examples give a flavor of the antecedents. The
misleading nature of figures and statistics together with the
deceptiveness and the people who employ them are a popular topic for

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list