Here is a revised version of that column.
Growing up in our family, the word “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 dying day the feeling of my grandmother’s larger hands cupping my then small face with her eyes close to mine, addressing me by my full name and saying, “Don’t you ever tell me another teewaddy!”
I love that eastern North Carolina word, and my own children were regularly cautioned about the dangers of teewaddies.
Unlike my mother and grandmother, 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 to be untrue and tells it anyway.
We all know the difference in our hearts. A mistake is when we call our friend the wrong name, erroneously tell a colleague a meeting is on Tuesday when it is actually on Wednesday or reference Australia when we mean 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.”
Politicians try to fudge on this point. White House Press Secretary Ron Zieglar once tried to cover up for his boss, Richard Nixon, by saying the president “misspoke.” I remember thinking at the time, “Sounds like a teewaddy-fib-lie to me!” Lying seems most acute during political seasons, and politicians from presidential contenders on down will issue vague and squishy mea culpas trying not to admit, “I told a whopper.”
My own observation and experience are 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.” My question is why we let misspeakers get away with it, why we tolerate linguistic cleanup attempts, why we let language be used as wrapping paper for something decidedly unattractive and possibly dangerous, why we allow them to put lipstick on pigs of their own creation.
Whatever I told my grandmother all those years ago, whether I lied or just got mixed up about something is lost in time. Either way, she was having none of it. Our family dealt with more than a few teewaddies and fibs as our children were growing up, but if one of them had ever uttered the word “misspoke,” I would have zipped past suspicion directly onto conviction.
We all see and hear misspeakers in public life, and when we suspect they are lying, they probably are. Their lies can be silly, annoying, ingenuous or thoroughly deceitful and frighteningly dangerous. Our job, if we have the courage to do it in this deeply contentious and miserable presidential election season, is to scream loudly and publicly every time we seeing that lipstick coming out of its tube.