Understanding Mark Twain’s “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything” Quote
Mark Twain is said to have said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” meaning if you tell a lie you have to remember what lie you told to who. This truism can also be expressed as, “it takes more effort to lie than it does to tell the truth.”
It’s doubtful that Mark Twain said this exact phrase. If he did, the documentation has been lost. The basic gist of the quote is true, and modern science proves it.
So, while the idea that Mark Twain said this is likely a myth, the general concept is spot on. We explain the history of the quote and the validity of the quote below.
TIP: Mark Twain is a pen name. Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Did Mark Twain Actually Say, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything?”
My research indicates that Mark Twain never said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” Instead, the quote comes from a passage of Mark Twain’s Notebook, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (1935), p. 240. This book contains what is supposed to be entries from Twain’s notebooks; this quote is supposedly a notebook entry from January or February 1894.
However, it’s difficult to confirm any of this as the book was published 25 years after Mark Twain’s death in 1910.
Other sources from the late 1800s and early 1900s contain similar quotes which are not attributed to Twain. This hints that it may have just been a common phrase. (See this great article on the topic):
- “If you always tell the truth you will never have to fix up excuses.” 23 October 1898, St. Paul (MN) Globe, “Ironical Ifs,” pg. 16, col. 6: From the Chicago News.
- “Another good thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you say.” 5 August 1922, Tampa (FL) Morning Tribune, pg. 4, col. 6
What Does the Quote Mean?
Whether or not Twain should be credited in full or in part aside, the quote has been passed down through the ages because it has truth to it.
The quote implies that it takes less energy to be honest than it does to construct lies and keep your story straight. Of course, this is only true as a rule of thumb, and not as an absolute.
To tell the truth, openly, one must live in a free society and must be free from persecution. If one lacks those benefits, then a person might feel that they must lie to save face.
The straightest distance between two points is a straight line; it takes more energy to lie than it does to tell the truth. Honesty builds depth of character.
As Louie CK once said, not every Mark Twain quote is a good one, but this one is, even if he didn’t actually coin it or even say it.
The 100 Greatest Quotes by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is known for his great quotes, insight, and use of the language of the American south in the mid-1800s. This video contains other great Mark Twain quotes.