Words at Play

Palter, Dissemble, and Other Words for Lying

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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?


Definition: to hide under a false appearance

Dissemble came to English from the French word dissimuler (“to hide,” “to conceal”), and ultimately from the Latin word dissimulare (“to conceal“ or “to disguise”). The word dissimule—much closer to the French spelling—was used in English until dissemble displaced it around 1600, possibly because of the influence of the unrelated word resemble.

The link to resemble resonates in Shakespeare: in Twelfth Night, the Bard used dissemble to mean “to disguise”—that is, “to not resemble”—when the Clown imitates a clergyman:

Well, I'll put it on, and I will dissemble myself in't; and I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.

In many contexts today, dissemble is used as a near-synonym of “to lie”:

He would have no reason to dissemble when he tells me that the dialect Sutton used to disparage para-cyclists is not remotely in the vocabulary of able-bodied rowers who share their Caversham base with Paralympians, as the cyclists do in the Manchester velodrome.
—Jonathan McEvoy, The Daily Mail, 30 April 2016

The first order of business is to support candidates in the 2016 election who are sane and plan to help, rather than continue to dissemble and obstruct.
—Tom Toles, The Washington Post, 22 April 2016

Resemble seems to haunt dissemble in a literal way: our evidence shows that dissemble is used where disassemble is intended with sufficient frequency to show that they are very easily confused.


Definition: to avoid telling the truth by not directly answering a question

If telling the truth is to stay on the straight and narrow, then to prevaricate is to take a crooked path. It comes from the Latin word varicare that literally means “to straddle,” derived from varus, meaning “bowlegged,” “bent,” or “knock-kneed.” In Latin, praevaricari was used to mean “to plough (a field) crookedly.” It also had a meaning used in Roman legal contexts that gave rise to our modern one: “to collude”–specifically, for an advocate to conspire with his opponent in order to conceal a crime or secure a particular outcome in a trial. The English word began life with the meaning “to transgress” religious or civil laws and “to go astray” (move crookedly) from rectitude. These meanings are now obsolete in English, but led to the modern meaning “to deviate from the truth” or “to speak equivocally or evasively,” or, to be perfectly blunt about it, “to lie.”

Like many legalistic long Latin-derived words, prevaricate contrasts with the monosyllabic Germanic word lie by adding subtle connotations of evading the truth rather than telling an outright falsehood—a lawyer’s trick.


Definition: likely to tell lies

Probably the best fancy way to describe a liar is mendacious. Words derived from Latin give us greater intellectual and emotional distance, which makes them sound technical or legalistic, especially compared to monosyllabic Germanic words: think of interrogate (instead of ask) or perceive (instead of see) or cogitate (instead of think).

Mendacious comes from the Latin word mendax, meaning “lying” or “false.” It is often used to refer to people who habitually lie. Mendax is related to the Latin word for “fault,” menda, which is the root of amend and emend. The a- of amend and e- of emend come from the Latin prefix meaning “out,” so amend and emend literally mean “to remove fault" or "to correct."

The noun mendacity can be used to mean "lack of honesty" or "lie."


Definition: a trivial or childish lie

Fib, like lie, is both a noun and a verb. It’s a less serious version of lie, often used when referring to children or inconsequential lies:

I fibbed about the price of dinner so they weren’t embarrassed.

The origins of fib aren’t known for certain. It’s possible that it comes from a shortening of fable, and there’s evidence of the fun word fible-fable (meaning “nonsense”) from the 1500s that could have led to fib. Fible-fable is an example of reduplication, like razzle-dazzle or super-duper, which connects fib to the way children naturally love to play with language.


Definition: to use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone

It looks like there’s equal in equivocate, and the first uses of this word meant “to have the same sound” or “to resemble closely,” and it came to have other meanings about the expression of ambiguity in language. For example, a now-obsolete meaning was “to use words that have a double meaning”; the related adjective equivocal originally meant “having two or more meanings,” and a contrasting word univocal, referred to words with just one meaning.

Today, equivocate means “to avoid committing to something” or “to use words that have more than one sense in order to say one thing while actually meaning another.” It is a word commonly used about politicians.


Definition: to tell a lie under oath

To perjure yourself is to tell what is false when you are sworn to tell the truth. Perjure comes from French and traces back to the Latin word perjurare meaning “to swear falsely”: per- means “detrimentally,” or “for the worse,” and jurare means “to swear,” and is also the root of jury. Perjure is usually used with a reflexive pronoun such as oneself, himself, herself or themselves, as in “he perjured himself during the trial.” The crime of forcing another person to lie under oath is referred to as suborning perjury.

Two related words deserve mention when discussing perjure: abjure has the same -jure root that means “to swear,” and means “to renounce upon oath,” or, more broadly, “to reject.” And forswear comes from Old English roots that form a parallel of perjure. The two are exact synonyms when used with the meaning “to swear falsely,” but forswear is more commonly used in a different way, to mean “to promise to give up (something),” as in “He said he would forswear cigarettes.”

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