Good news! We're coming up on June 16, National Fudge Day.
While the gooey, sugary confection has its own sweet merits, we here at Vocabulary.com would like to take this opportunity to honor the other meaning of fudge — a verb meaning "to lie when the stakes are relatively low," often to get through something uncomfortable. You can fudge your height or weight on a form, or fudge your way through a pop quiz when you didn't do all the reading the night before, but you shouldn't fudge your testimony in a court of law when you are under oath. That's called perjury, and the circumstances are too serious and the punishment too severe. Here are some vocabulary words about lying in its various forms.
For more terms of deceipt, check out this list: A Web of Lies
Prevaricate is a polite way to say that you have purposefully confused a situation by telling half-truths. The word comes from Latin praevaricatus, which literally means "to walk crookedly," a good metaphor for following the path of the habitual liar if there ever was one. Prevarication is intimately tied up with concept of evasion, when you don't want to be nailed down to the facts or held to account. An evader is on the run from the truth, bobbing and weaving their way around any version of reality that has them shouldering the blame or being at fault. Because of its sense of smoke and mirrors, it is difficult to prevaricate when you've been caught red-handed, but a skillful liar can do it even then, by confusing everyone with a discussion of subjects that are beside the point.
On the spectrum of liars, a step or two beyond the occasional prevaricator is the person who exhibits mendacity, which is defined as "the tendency to lie." Mendacity comes from the Latin, ultimately from a word one wishes we used in English, mendax "a liar." Accusing someone of being a liar is a powerful act, but screaming "mendax!" at them would really put them in their place. We all (well, most of us, anyway) lie when cornered, but that doesn't mean we exhibit mendacity or are mendacious. Mendacity is a character trait, something that defines you, which suggests that lying is an essential part of who you are. On both sides of the political aisle, it has become commonplace to suggest that someone you don't like has a "casual relationship with the truth." Someone who doesn't take the truth seriously shows mendacity.
The word dissemble sounds like taking something apart, as if someone has said "disassemble" very fast. But rather than taking something apart, you can think of dissemble as constructing something, like a costume or a mask to hide one's true self. A dissembler builds a disguise, either of fabric or words to conceal that which they don't want exposed. The Latin source of this word, dissimulare, breaks down in the following way: dis- "completely" and simulare "to make like, imitate, copy, represent." Pretending to be something you're not is at the heart of dissembling.
The etymology of deceit communicates the power of lying, both for the liar themselves and the audience they are trying to fool. Deceit comes from Latin decipere, which means "to ensnare, take in, beguile, cheat." Every lie is, in one way or another, an attempt to ensnare someone in a story, to beguile them into believing you. To practice deceit is to mislead, and it gets to the core of what lying is all about. Deceit is a strong word, and although technically correct, it isn't really used in the case of the white lies that you tell when concealing a surprise party or when telling a friend who could use a kind word that they look good in that outfit. Deceit is really reserved for a lie with a sinister motive of one kind or another, and not for the more innocuous fib.
Duplicity comes from a Latin root that means "double," and it is another common modus operandi of a liar — they are presenting two very different selves to the world, and it becomes unclear which of the two, if either, can be trusted. Mark Twain is credited with saying "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." Twain meant that liars always have two stories, the truth and the lie, and the lie is something they have to remember and keep straight in order to be convincing. Whereas if you tell the truth, there is no need to commit the fictional version to memory, you can just relate what happened. Duplicity is a very sneaky word, and it brings to mind espionage scenarios and double agents in spy movies, but any liar can correctly be accused of being duplicitous.
Also filled with connotations of international intrigue and toppled governments is the word subterfuge. This word emphasizes the skill of the liar. To practice subterfuge one must be slick and stealthy, easily avoiding capture by the people you just "put one over on" who are now chasing you. If a student cheats on a test one time by writing a single answer on their hand, it's not subterfuge. A larger conspiracy in which a few sneaky masterminds coordinate a covert operation to supply several classmates with all the answers to all the tests for the semester is closer to subterfuge.
The spectrum of deceit as a practice is vast and varied, and the vocabulary associated with lying encompasses it all. And while lying is a skill that most people acquire to some degree, so is knowing the difference between types of lies, and the motivations behind them. Bearing false witness is a fact of life, but sharpening your vocabulary can help you diagnose whether you are being told a relatively innocent fib or are the victim of a gigantic prevarication. Armed with an understanding of these lingustic distinctions, we'll all have a better chance of seeing the truth.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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