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COMPARATIVE MENDACITY 101

THE ENGLISH language is so amply endowed that there’s comparative mendacity. I never thought of this scale of dishonesty until I looked up “to equivocate,” the next in my ever-expanding list of political activity.

Merriam-Webster Online says, in part, that to equivocate is “to use language especially with intent to deceive” (see two days ago here at SimanaitisSays). In its Synonym Discussion, Merriam-Webster places “To equivocate” in the middle of a mendacity spectrum. So, indeed, let’s arrange it and related words in a sort of Dante’s Inferno of Mendacity.

Durante degli Alighieri, known as Dante, c. 1265–1321, Italian poet.

Like Dante, let’s arrange these sins of alternative fact in concentric circles of increasing evil. We work our way out from the center, from “to lie,” simply because this one is the easiest to define. With each, we cite Merriam-Webster’s definition, provide etymological tidbits, and some examples.

Pianta Delli Mendacia, after an illustration by Michelangelo Caetani.

To Lie. M-W describes, “Lie is the most blunt term, imputing dishonesty.” Curiously, in a language so abundant, the word “lie” means everything from “telling a falsehood” to “being at rest.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, uses six of its microphotographed pages to describe all its meanings and nuances. Its various English appearances date from before the year 1000.

The OED’s first definition of “lie” agrees with M-W’s: “In mod. use, the word is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided….”

We seem no longer to live in polite times.

The OED traces “lie,” in the sense of falsehood, to lygi in Old Norse, spoken by a people apparently known for moral reprobation, not to say other misbehavior well documented in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Odin aka the Ring Cycle’s Wotan, apparently gathering rosebuds for future Valkyries. Image from 10 Disturbing Episodes from Norse Mythology.

To Prevaricate. M-W writes, “Prevaricate softens the bluntness of lie by implying quibbling or confusing the issue.”

Tom Sawyer comes immediately to mind. So does Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky matter: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is….”

To Equivocate. M-W says of this mid-level mendacity: “Equivocate implies using words having more than one sense so as to seem to say one thing but intend another.”

My favorite equivocation is Wife Dottie or me saying to the other, “I don’t deserve you.”

To Palter. Moving down a notch in mendacity, M-W writes, “Palter implies making unreliable statements of fact or intention or insincere promises.” This is a new word to me, so once more I consulted the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971.

Though “palter” has been around since the 16th century, even the OED hedges on its origin: “The form is that of an iterative in -er, like faulter, totter, waver; but no suitable palt is known, and no corresponding vb. is known in any other lang.”

To make up for this lack of definitive etymology, three definitions of “palter” are offered: First, “to speak indistinctly or idly; to mumble, babble.” This is exemplified by Bale, 1538: “I never mysee but paulter/Our blessed ladyes psaulter.”

The Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by St. Bonaventure, c. 1200 A.D.

Second, “to shift or alter (in position).”

And, third, getting to our modern meaning, “to shift, shuffle, equivocate, prevaricate in statement or dealing; to deal crookedly or evasively; to play it fast and loose.”

This last OED definition and M-W’s “insincere promises” sure make paltering sound like a political activity.

To Fib. Last and, according to M-W, least damning, “Fib applies to a telling of a trivial untruth.” The word “fib” may derive from the word “fable.”

This idea of degree of untruth, however, raises the philosophical matter of what’s trivial.

Maybe “trivial” is yet another word for our times. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

One comment on “COMPARATIVE MENDACITY 101

  1. Skip
    September 21, 2017

    Dennis, interesting subject. It reminds me of the 1962 film BIlly Budd staring Robert Ryan and Peter Ustinov which takes place on board the HMS Avenger. “There are many ways to lie, Mr. Claggert, but there is only one way to tell the truth.”

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