There are hundreds of four-letter words in the dictionary, but some of the most famous are banned from appearance in mainstream publications such as this, as well as frowned upon in polite conversation. You know exactly the ones I am thinking about—the naughty words you probably first uttered in grade school. Most four-letter words, naughty or nice, have the same positive quality: they provide the most direct and accurate method of defining a situation or a person, place or thing.
Some prefer long words, the bigger the better, believing a polysyllabic term conveys the message that the user is a learned sophisticate. Here is a good example of a word like that: mendacious, an adjective that describes a type of behavior. We all engage in mendacious conduct, some occasionally, some often, and others habitually.
Why would anyone use mendacious to explain the style of another person? There is no better word than liar. Yes, it is a strong word, but powerful and meaningful to all who hear or read it. In addition to frequency, there are various levels of lying, ranging from innocent and casual to recurring and nasty, and up to aggressive and felonious. Some might define that pattern more colloquially, citing fibs, white lies or whoppers.
Despite the involvement of the majority of society, the words lie, lying and liar have remained in the shadows, generally reserved for conversational use rather than in public statements. As a result of that—or perhaps because of it—those words were seldom used in publications.
Elected officials win the backing of their supporters, yet are the group most often identified with fabrication, which is near the top of the list of gentle synonyms for lying. That supposed trait of politicians applies in the United States and around the world; it is a universal format. Their rhetoric naturally often dwells more on what they believe the public hopes to hear rather than the actual status of conditions.
Politicians are naturally competitive, or else they wouldn’t have chosen and been successful in that line of work. They quickly recognized the lies being asserted by the opposition, yet they refrained from responding with accusations, shunning those simplest and most descriptive terms: liar and lies.
That mutual coexistence created a comfort zone for all sides, and as a result, those harsh words were not reported.
That changed, as I’m sure you have noticed, creating a frank and honest atmosphere. Lie and liar are more commonly attributed. The credit or blame for that change goes to President Donald Trump who started using the expressions lie and lying during the Republican presidential primary on his evaluation of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and increased the volume in his general election charges aimed at Hillary Clinton.
Trump himself presented an attractive target, based upon a multitude of exaggerations, inventions, equivocations and deceptions. Attempting to counteract one media report on certain lies, a White House staff member coined a term that will surely make the history books: those were not lies, they were alternate facts. Huh?
This essay is not about Trump and his critics. It is about lying. Several studies have shown that 60 percent of adults readily admit to lying. How common is it? One survey confirmed that over 60 percent lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation while some lied three or more times.
The daily challenge we all face is differentiating between what is a lie and what is the truth. It is a daunting task and deciding is sometimes not simple.
As Mark Twain observed: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.
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