The other 'L' word

An observation during the closing weeks of this current presidential campaign: What a rich vocabulary the English language has for suggesting - without explicitly saying - that someone is lying.

That's "lying" as in "fibbing." Saying things that aren't so. Telling falsehoods with the intent to deceive. Practicing mendacity. Indulging in willful obfuscation. Prevarication. See what I mean?

"Lie," as a noun or a verb, is such a little word: a single syllable consisting of a liquid consonant and a diphthong - to use the phonetician's term for what we referred to in school as the "long i." The related noun, "liar," is almost as brief: one more unstressed syllable with another liquid consonant, "r," which in some dialects isn't even pronounced.

"Liar" is the kind of word one can utter under one's breath, or even let slip involuntarily. And yet it is a deeply emotive word. A liar is what we are taught early on not to be. It's also a word we're taught to be very careful with in applying to others. And yet so many in the public square are being so selective with so-called "facts" that we're all starting to develop elaborate vocabularies to hold politicians and their spinmeisters to account without using the "L" word.

Politicians dare not hurl charges of "Liar, liar, pants on fire" across the partisan divide willy-nilly. Readers and viewers expect mainstream media to show "respect" for an incumbent president. Then news organizations, in the interest of nonpartisanship, extend that courtesy to presidential challengers.

There's a paradox at work here: intense polarization across an ideological spectrum that, in mainstream American politics, is fairly narrow. And all this polarization happens in a system that includes no mechanism for the head of government to face direct questions regularly from the public or their representatives, as a prime minister does during regular "question time" in parliament. Presidential press conferences are about as close as the American system gets to this, and they aren't very close.

The debates have provided abundant opportunity for parsing the nuances of mendacity, as the audio fact-checkers of NPR did after last week's debate. "Stretching the truth" is a locution that has been getting a workout: "Both Kerry and Bush stretched the truth at times," as The Washington Post and other papers reported.

"Exaggeration" is another useful item in the political lexicon. It's polysyllabic, as a lot of these fudge words are. This helps soften them, because even smart people have to think for a nanosecond about what they mean. And because you can't exaggerate something that isn't there in the first place, to decry an opponent's comment as an "exaggeration" is to concede that it has a nub of truth - not an utter lie.

There's another idiom more common in British than American English, "to be economical with the truth." Here's something from the online edition of the British movie magazine Empire: "I've not seen the press coverage today, but I'll bet the pro-Kerry papers have a picture of Bush looking goofy and the pro-Bush papers have a picture of Kerry looking shifty, both of which prove the camera can, and does, lie all the time. Well, if not lie, at least be 'economical with the truth.' "

"Mislead" is an interesting stealth proxy for "lie." Because it's often used to refer to giving someone an inadvertent bum steer, it's much "softer" than "lie." But it contains the suggestion of "leading badly," which has particular zing when directed at a politician. This can backfire, though, when overused, especially by another politician. "Senator Kerry, Why Are You Always 'Misled'?" is the headline on one conservative rant, er, commentary. (Note to politicians, actual and aspiring, everywhere: Be careful about letting yourself become the subject of a passive verb.)

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