[Ads-l] Joke Origin: A clear conscience is usually a sign of a bad memory

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 28 14:12:48 UTC 2023

The quip in the subject line has been attributed to humorists Mark
Twain and Steven Wright. I received a request via twitter to explore
this topic.

"The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs" contains a valuable entry with
citations beginning in 1949.

Barry Popik has a helpful entry about the Steven Wright attribution
with citations beginning in 1998.

The earliest strong match I have located appeared in 1902 within "The
Evening Star" newspaper of  Washington, D.C. The punchline was spoken
by the fictitious Senator Sorghum.

[ref] 1902 July 21, The Evening Star, Shooting Stars: A Delicate
Distinction, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling
America) [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
A Delicate Distinction.
"That friend of yours seems to have a clear conscience."
"No," answered Senator Sorghum, "not a clear conscience; merely a bad
memory—which with some people answers the purpose much better."
[End excerpt]

I hypothesize that U.S. journalist and humorist Philander Chase
Johnson crafted the above instance of the joke. He worked at the “The
Evening Star”, and he created the character Senator Sorghum.

Tracing is difficult because the phrasing evolved over time. Here is
an overview listing key vocabulary:

1902 Jul: bad memory
1911 Oct: poor memory
1915 Dec: convenient memory
1917 Apr: short memory
1923 Jan: forgetful
1933 May: dumb

Here are links to the full article and the abbreviated article:

Feedback and earlier citations welcome,
Garson O’Toole

The entry in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” appears on page 42.
Barry Popik’s pertinent entry is here:

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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