The death of Robert Armstrong, the former career civil servant and Cabinet Secretary from 1979 to 1987, who, not incidentally, served as Secretary to the Board of the Royal Opera House from 1968 to 1988 and was chairman of the trustees of the V&A from 1988 to 1998, has caused me to look up the origin of the phrase ‘economical with the truth’, for which he is – somewhat unjustly – best remembered. The answer is, as I had suspected, much more complicated than the presumption that it was used as a synonym for mandarin evasion – not telling the whole truth when he should have done and for which he was made to look a fool in court. It goes back to Edmund Burke who used the phrase in his Letters on a Regicide Peace, published in 1796, as follows: ‘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’. In the court in Australia, where Armstrong used the phrase, he prefaced it with the reference to ‘As one person said’, assuming that his listeners would know that it was a reference to Burke and would also know that it was a reference to a form of dutiful reticence, of which Armstrong was a master, the opposite of wilful evasion. It was a total clash of intellectual and verbal cultures, which Armstrong lost.