Economical with the truth
To be economical with the truth literally means to avoid revealing too much of the truth. While the idea may have an approbatory sense of prudence or diplomacy, the phrase is often either used euphemistically to denote dissimulation (misleading by withholding pertinent information) or else used ironically to mean outright lying.
The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations and Kenneth Rose trace the idea to Edmund Burke, the first of whose Letters on a Regicide Peace, written in 1795 and published in 1796, included:
Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.
The religious sense of "economy" was applied to religious truth by John Henry Newman, based on Jesus' injunction not to cast pearls before swine. Newman advocated "cautious dispensation of the truth, after the manner of a discreet and vigilant steward" while being "careful ever to maintain substantial truth". Mental reservation is a somewhat related idea also associated with Roman Catholic ethics.
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economise it.
The precise phrase "economical with the truth" is attested from 1897. It was used in the New Zealand House of Representatives in 1923, and the House of Commons of Canada in 1926; "over-economical with the truth" was used in the British House of Commons in 1968. The phrase was used somewhat ironically to refer to one of the Gestapo involved in the rounding up and killing of escaped PoW's following The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in Paul Brickhill's book, The Great Escape, originally published in 1950. Alan Durant of Middlesex University describes the phrase prior to 1986 as having "extremely restricted currency" and as a rule used in allusion to either Burke or Twain.
"Economical with the truth" became a political catchphrase in the United Kingdom in 1986 during the Spycatcher trial in the Australian Supreme Court of New South Wales, when Robert Armstrong, the UK Cabinet Secretary, was questioned by Malcolm Turnbull, and described a letter thus:
- Q: So that letter contains a lie, does it not?
- A: It contains a misleading impression in that respect.
- Q: Which you knew to be misleading at the time you made it?
- A: Of course.
- Q: So it contains a lie?
- A: It is a misleading impression, it does not contain a lie, I don't think.
- Q: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
- A: You are as good at English as I am.
- Q: I am just trying to understand.
- A: A lie is a straight untruth.
- Q: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth?
- A: As one person said, it is perhaps being economical with the truth.
Bob Ellis wrote that the audience had laughed at "bent untruth", and that Armstrong expected a laugh for "economical with the truth" but got none. Political opponents of the government's actions in the Spycatcher case derided Armstrong's distinction.
In 1992, when Alan Clark was questioned at the Old Bailey by Geoffrey Robertson in an Arms-to-Iraq case, he accounted for the discrepancies between his testimony and statements he had made previously. His response became notorious:
- Clark: it's our old friend "economical"
- Robertson: with the truth?
- Clark: With the actualité. There was nothing misleading or dishonest to make a formal or introductory comment that the Iraqis would be using the current orders for general engineering purposes. All I didn't say was 'and for making munitions'.
Alan Durant was an expert witness in a 1992 libel suit brought by a man who had been described as "economical with the truth". The defendant claimed the words did not imply the plaintiff was a liar. Durant, after examining a corpus of uses of the phrase, felt that lying had become the default meaning, but might be over-ridden based on the context. The earlier allusion to Burke or Twain was no longer common. The libel suit was settled out of court.
- Durant, Alan (1996). "On the interpretation of allusions and other innuendo meanings in libel actions: the value of semantic and pragmatic evidence" (PDF). International Journal of Speech Language and the Law. 3 (2): 195–210. ISSN 1748-8885. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Knowles, Elizabeth, ed. (23 August 2007). Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199208951. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations 2007, p.56
- Beckett, Francis (14 April 2003). "A perfect spy". NewStatesman. (Subscription required (help)). "... Rose points out indignantly, goes back to Edmund Burke."
- Burke, Edmund (1796). "Letter I". Two letters addressed to a member of the present Parliament, on the proposals for peace with the regicide directory of France. London: Rivington. p. 137.
- Burke, Edmund (1999) . "Letter I: On the Overtures of Peace". In Payne, Edward John. Letters on a Regicide Peace . Select Works of Edmund Burke. 3. Foreword by Francis Canavan (A New Imprint of the Payne ed.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. p. 151.
- Shell, Marc (1 September 1993). The Economy of Literature. JHU Press. p. 106. ISBN 9780801846946. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Newman, John Henry (1865). "Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865) – Note F. On Page 269. The Economy". Newman Reader. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Twain, Mark (1897). "Following the Equator: Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar". Mark Twain in His Times. University of Virginia. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Leavenworth, Charles S. (1901). "The Dawn of Peace". The Arrow War with China. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. p. 208.
Mark Twain once said, " Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it ! " But there is no necessity to be economical with the truth about the motives of the Cabinets of the world.
- Iron Age. Chilton Company. 57: 28. 14 January 1897.
If you can't say its dead dull with them, one can say without being economical with the truth that they are in a condition of "masterly inactivity."
- The Weekly Underwriter. 56 (24): 413. 12 June 1897.
The insurance superintendent of Kansas is said to be very economical with the truth. That certainly is not because of his reticence for he is much given to words.
- Parliamentary Debates: House of Representatives. New Zealand. 26 June 1923. p. 299.
I would advise them to think of this : that it is not well to be too economical with the truth – nothing should be suppressed.
- Chaplin, Alexander Dew (5 May 1926). "House of Commons Debates". p. 3137. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
Now, these triplets of truth are very economical with the truth, and if they made such statements in any private business they would not last long.
- Dalkeith, Earl of (4 July 1968). "PRIME MINISTER (TELEVISION BROADCAST)". HC Deb. vol 767 c1690. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
would he openly admit that he either made a gross miscalculation, misled the people or at best had been over-economical with the truth?
- Paul Brickhill: The Great Escape -reprinted in Marks and Spencer's Military Classics; passage on Page 256
- Durant 1996, p.4
- Durant 1996, pp.4–5
- Ellis, Bob (4 May 2009). And So it Went. Penguin Books Limited. p. 150. ISBN 9780857966025. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Trewin, Ion (14 September 2009). Alan Clark: The Biography. Orion. p. 158. ISBN 9780297857822. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
- Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations 2007, p.212
- Durant 1996
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