Definition: to act insincerely or deceitfully
Palter began as a word meaning “to mumble indistinctly,” and evolved to mean “to act insincerely or deceitfully,” “to use trickery,” or “to equivocate” by the time that Shakespeare used it in Julius Caesar:
Romans, that have spoke the word, and will not palter.
Palter also can mean “to haggle” or “to bargain especially with the intent of delay or compromise,” but that meaning is even more rare today than the “to equivocate” meaning. Recently, researchers into political communications at Harvard have been using palter with a more specific meaning, according to the Harvard Gazette:
Paltering is when a communicator says truthful things and in the process knowingly leads the listener to a false conclusion. It has the same effect as lying, but it allows the communicator to say truthful things and, some of our studies suggest, feel like they’re not being as deceptive as liars.
–Todd Rogers, Harvard Kennedy School
Doing this takes skill and the kind of awareness of what constitutes incriminating speech normally associated with trial lawyers, but the payoff is avoiding the blunt lie. The article goes on to say, “Even if caught, they’re often judged by outside observers less harshly than if they had lied outright.”
The origin of palter is unclear. It could come from the obsolete verb pelt meaning “to bargain,” or it may be a distant relative of the obsolete noun paltry, meaning “something useless or worthless.” But if a plausible theory of the word’s origin were uncovered, should we believe it?