Rob (chiroho) wrote in fandom_grammar,

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Say What?: Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies / Honesty is the best policy

This installment of "Say What?" looks at two expressions that deal with honesty. The first you may not be too familiar with, but the second you probably had drilled into you as a child -- and may now be drilling into your own children! So let's jump in and see what we can learn.

Ask no questions and you'll be told no lies

The first proverb we're looking at is "ask no questions and you'll be told no lies", which immediately suggests that if we don't go looking for the truth, we won't be given any dishonest answers in order to cover it up. The first reference to the proverb is in Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer III.51 (1773):
Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no fibs.
The expression crops up in the writings of well-known literary names such as Henry Lawson (1900) and Rudyard Kipling (1903), who used it in both stories and prose, so the expression was well known by that time. The fact that these authors were in very different geographical locations also shows that the saying was and is widespread, so it can easily be worked into your stories if desired -- so long as what you're writing is set in the appropriate period. For example:
"How was Gibbs able to access that information?" Ziva said, confusion obvious in her tone.
"Ask no questions, and he'll tell you no lies, Ziva," Tony responded enigmatically.
However, outside of this specific usage the expression doesn't necessarily make much sense. For example, you don't need to be asking questions in order for someone to be lying to you. That hasn't stopped many performers from Bing Crosby to The Bangles and even Lynyrd Skynyrd using this expression in their songs, as in the first verse of Crosby's song "Ask Me No Questions (And I'll Tell You No Lies)":
If I told you I don't mind
Would you believe me?
When I say to you, you're not my kind
Do I deceive you with this fragile disguise?
Ask me no questions
And I will tell you no lies
If you could read my heart I would not deny
But I pretend
The way the expression is used here is actually subtly different because the person in the song is saying he's already lying, but doesn't want to have to lie any more. He's almost begging not to be asked questions. However you choose to use the expression, ensure that when you do, you use it appropriately.

Honesty is the best policy

Our second proverb or saying is probably far better known, and more widely used, than the first. Dating back to either 1599 or 1605, depending on the source, the phrase was first used in Sir Edwin Sandys' book Europae Speculum which states:
This over-politick … order may reach a note higher than our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie.
A brief glance at the modern form of the expression seems to make it obvious that the best thing that anyone can do is be honest. However, if we look more closely there are two possible meanings. Firstly, it could mean that honesty is the best policy because it is a good thing. But a second possible meaning is that honesty is politic, in that it is the best course of action to produce results. While the first interpretation obviously gives whoever holds to that policy the moral high ground, it does depend on other people being honest as well. As for the second meaning, that was neatly summed up by Jerome K. Jerome in The Idler: "It is always the best policy to speak the truth -- unless, of course, you're an exceptionally good liar."

Regardless of the meaning, there is nothing stopping you from using the saying in your stories:
"Damnit," Tony cursed. "I should never have told Gibbs that McBlabbermouth ate his sweet and sour pork."
"Honesty is always the best policy," Ziva replied with a rather smug tone.
So, is honesty the best policy? Many would argue that there are times when telling a "white lie" is preferable to the truth, for example if you despise the hideously expensive new item a good friend just purchased and is showing off to everyone. But that really just ties back into the previous comments about whether it's politically advantageous, in this instance to your friendship, to be honest. Whatever you end up deciding, a saying by Richard Whately, a nineteenth-century Anglican archbishop of Dublin, summarises the subject well: "Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by that maxim is not an honest man."

I hope you've enjoyed "Say What?" this week. We're only doing this feature once a month during the summer, but in two weeks' time there'll be something new which we very much hope will take your fancy.

Simpson, John and Speake, Jennifer (2008), A Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford University Press.
Taggert, Caroline (2011), An Apple A Day. Readers Digest.
The Phrase Finder

Tags: !say what, author:chiroho, language:colloquial, language:old-fashioned

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