When I was a little girl, I really did not know about what we now think of as “four letter words.” Words were just words, and we used them to communicate, and most of the ones I knew were fair game to be used in conversation. I was aware, though, that words are powerful and that there are some words polite people do not use, even though I was a tad foggy on exactly what those words might be. My mother had a unwritten list of words my sister and I should not say — a list, which for reasons never explained to me, included the word “nasty.”
    To this day, I still cringe a bit when I hear that word used.
    Another word not in favor was “lie.” In our family, “lie” was rarely used. Instead, we were admonished not to tell “fibs.” My maternal grandmother, from whom my own mother undoubtedly inherited some of her ideas about language, used an even more creative word than “fibs.” I no longer remember my infraction, but I will remember until my last breath the feel of my grandmother’s large hands holding my then small face with her eyes close to mine, saying, “Margaret Dawson, don’t you ever tell me another teewaddy!” {mosimage}
    I love that word, and my own children were cautioned on a regular basis about the dangers of teewaddies.
Unlike my mother, though, I find “lie” to be a plain, strong, and useful English word. Everyone understands that to lie is to be deliberately untruthful. An error of fact is not a lie. It is a mistake. A lie is something the person telling it knows is not true and tells it anyway.
    The problem is no one wants to fess up to telling lies, so many of us, most obviously people in public life, try to cover such lapses by saying     we “misspoke.”
The first time I ever heard anyone use that word at all was then-Presidential Press Secretary Ron Zieglar covered for his boss Richard Nixon by saying the president had “misspoken.” I remember thinking at the time, “Sounds like a teewaddy-fib-lie to me!”
    Writing in the New York Times magazine last week, columnist William Safire makes just this point after a reader e-mailed to ask, “Perhaps you can explain the difference between misspeaking and lying.”
We all know the difference in our hearts. Misspeaking is when you call your friend the wrong name, when you mistakenly tell your colleagues the meeting is Tuesday when it is really Wednesday, when you reference Australia when you were thinking about Austria.
    Lying is when we say or write something to mislead or deceive someone else, knowing full well what we are doing. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “a lie is a lie is a lie,” and there is no getting around that fact whatever the reason it has been told.
    I find it fascinating how many people misspeak during political seasons. Several presidential contenders have acknowledged, almost always after being called out on the matter, having misspoken about something. This seems to be a way to say a vague and squishy “mea culpa” without having to say “I told a whopper.” Writing in The New Yorker magazine recently, Hendrik Hertzberg described misspeak as “a word that is apparently thought capable, in its contemporary political usage, of isolating a palpable, possibly toxic untruth, sealing it up in an airtight bag and disposing of it harmlessly.”
    My own experience is that people are smarter than that. We often know when someone, particularly a public figure, is telling us a tale under the banner of misspeaking. Late night comedians make their livings telling us jokes about just such linguistic clean-up attempts.
    My question is why do we let misspeakers get away with it?Why do we allow others to dress their untruths in language that tries to make them look less tainted than they really are? Why do we allow language to be used as wrapping paper for something decidedly unattractive and possibly dangerous?
    Whatever I told my grandmother all those years ago, whether I deliberately lied or whether I simply got mixed up about something, is lost in time. Either way, she was having none of it. We dealt with more than a few teewaddies and fibs as my children were growing up, but if one of them had ever told me he or she “misspoke,” I would have been beyond suspicion and on to conviction.
    All of us see and hear misspeakers in public life, be it government, business, professional or social. We encounter them in our individual lives when they cannot quite bring themselves to say they fibbed and use language to pretty up the situation. It is human nature, and it can be silly, annoying, deeply ingenuous, or thoroughly deceitful and dangerous, depending on who is doing it.
I think of it as putting lipstick on the pig.
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