‘figures won’t lie, but liars will figure’: meaning and early occurrences

In the phrase figures won’t lie, but liars will figure, and its variants, the first clause refers to accurate calculations, and the second punningly refers to the manipulation of those calculations.

Of American-English origin, this phrase is based on the rhetorical figure called chiasmus, i.e., the figure in which the order of words in the first clause is inverted in the second.

 

PRECURSORS OF THE PHRASE

 

Before this punning phrase appeared, the idea that it conveys had already been expressed. Here are two examples among the many that I have found:

1-: From The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont) of Friday 3rd March 1843:

It is often said that figures cannot lie, but you may marshal them in such a way as to make them tell a falsehood in one direction, while they speak the truth in another.

2-: From the Albany Evening Atlas (Albany, New York) of Monday 8th December 1845:

“Figures wont [sic] lie” […] is very commonly assumed by him who wishes to deceive. It is true that figures will not lie, when truly and honestly used, for an honest purpose, nor will words; but unfortunately for the honest, neither figures, nor words, are proof against the false use of him who wishes to make them lie, as the ignorant use of him who does not know how to use them truly.

 

EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

These are the earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase figures won’t lie, but liars will figure, and variants, in chronological order:

1-: From this letter, published in The Daily Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 17th August 1872:

CLEARFIELD COUNTY.
A United Democracy—Radical Lie Nailed—Prominent Liberals.

Correspondence of the Patriot.]
Clearfield, Pa., August 15, 1872.—Editors Patriot—Sirs: I have noticed in several of the Grant organs that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the democracy in this county by reason of the action of the Baltimore convention in endorsing Greeley. I write to assure our friends in other parts of the state that this report is another lie Granted unto us by these organs. The democracy of this county are too wide awake and too well organized not to act in concert with the wishes of their party expressed in a national convention. They are far-seeing enough to clearly discern that the support and endorsement of the ticket nominated at Baltimore is the only way to overthrow Grantism and the corrupt ring which rules our state government and maintain intact the organization of the party for future victories. Not only such leading and active democrats as Senator Wallace, Ex-Governor Bigler, Hon. G. R. Barrett, Hon. John Lawshe, Hon. T. J. Boyer, Hon. T. J. M’Cullough, G. B. Goodlander, Dr. R. V. Wilson, Israel Zeet, J. Blackwaters, and William M. M’Cullough, but the rank and file will cheerfully put their shoulders to the wheel and push along the “chariot of victory” recently started in North Carolina (for we claim and have the majority in that state notwithstanding their frauds and negro colonization—figures won’t lie, but liars will figure—and they are busy at it). As leading liberal republicans we have Hon. Alex. Irvine, S. B. Rowe, John M. Chase, William M’Bride, Captain Welch and a host of others who will make a stand up fight for the reform ticket. Clearfield will give Buckalew at least 1,600 majority in October, and for Greeley in November, oh! God count the “leaves in Valambrosa’s vale.”
                    Democrat.

2-: From the Princeton Clarion (Princeton, Indiana) of Thursday 3rd October 1872:

“Figures Won’t Lie.”
We find the above language in a column and a half article in last week’s Democrat. While it may be true that “figures won’t lie,” it is equally true that liars will figure.—[Vide Princeton Democrat and the Greeley papers generally.]

3-: From The Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) of Friday 12th September 1873—with the variant figures will lie when liars handle them:

ANOTHER DEMOCRATIC SLANDER!
THE FALSE FIGURES OF ORVIS EXPOSED!
No Defalcation, as Alleged, in the State Treasury.

From the Pittsburg Commercial]
The allegation of Gen. Jackson that “figures will not lie,” has been proven to be itself a lie, for figures will lie when liars handle them, and put them in the wrong place, or manufacture them to order.
An instance of this is afforded by Mr. J. H. Orvis, a Democratic member of the last Legislature, who presents an array of figures to show that there is a defalcation in the State Treasury of $2,437,755.
Orvis is a Centre county lawyer, with a high opinion of himself, and with a serene confidence in his ability to hoodwink and deceive the people. He trumped his false figures before the Legislature, last winter, but was promptly rebuked for his wantonness and mendacity. He refused, when asked, to go to the books in the State Treasury and Auditor General’s Office for his figures; but preferred to cook his statistics in his own way with no authority but his own to back them.

4-: From the Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota) of Friday 29th February 1884:

The Great Public Benefit.

“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 [sic] 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. They say they cannot understand why trade is so quiet with them, while it is always booming at McLaurin’s. The trade of the St. Paul Store is gained with toil and liberal advertising. The institution has conformed with the stringency of the times and placed goods within the reach of all. The immense trade they enjoyed through February is a guarantee that their efforts have been crowned with success. Truth eventually triumphs and honesty gets its reward. This is a sure proof that the people are in sympathy with the St. Paul Store. The working people, the mainstay of the nation are with them and thus they can afford in view of their immense sales to be content with a small profit.

5-: From The Sioux City Daily Journal (Sioux City, Iowa) of Saturday 7th March 1885:

DAKOTA AT NEW ORLEANS.
FORMAL OPENING OF THE EXHIBIT.

New Orleans, March 3, 1885—Correspondence of The Journal: Dakota has had her “opening day,” which means that her exhibit has been completely and formally turned over to the exposition management. This ceremony took place yesterday afternoon. […]
[…] It was a proud day for Dakota. Every detail was admirably calculated and executed, but the character of Col. Donan’s address, in my judgement, was unfortunate. He made a circus of our grand effort. […]
From the very outset he indulged in this extravagant nonsense, without application or explanation, preparing the minds of his hearers to accept all the statistical facts which he afterwards uttered as facetious. They were prepared to believe, that in the event figures can’t lie, liars sometimes figure. As a Dakotaian, anxious for Dakota’s advancement and dignified position among the great commonwealths of our land, I regret the colonel’s balderdash at the outbreak of his oration. Many thoughtful people have referred to it as ill-timed and out of place. To me it looked like placing a clown at the head of an army to amuse the enemy.