English has over forty verbs, and a similar number of nouns, for telling an untruth. Honestly! Would I lie, or, for that matter, prevaricate, deceive, fib, falsify, or engage in invention, dissimulation, distortion, or obfuscation?
Even more striking, English has no single verb or noun for telling the truth. There is no truthify or truthification. Stephen Colbert has proposed truthiness to represent non-deception, but it hasn’t taken hold outside comedy circles.
Why this incredible disparity? Are we forty-plus times more likely to lie than tell the truth? Or is it simply that Truth is a pure and lofty state, as God is God, short of which anything else is untruth to some degree or other?
To get a sense of where we stand, truth-or-lying-wise, I looked at some of our most common statements to get a rough idea how often, and to what extent, each is true or untrue:
— I love you: Spoken to a person, this is quite often untrue, especially when used for conflict-avoidance or sex. Spoken to a cat, the balance is similar. We may want to love our cat, but it seldom reciprocates, so we hedge our bets. On the other hand, spoken to a dog, it’s almost always true. Love a dog, and it will love you back.
— I didn’t see the red light in time: Often ambiguous, but essentially untrue. Radar records indicate that most drivers race when the light turns yellow and are long-gone when it turns red. They may not actually have seen the red light, but they knew when they passed it what color it would be. Of the minority who didn’t speed up to beat the light, but honestly didn’t see it, almost all were texting or reading their e-mail.
— I have a stomach ache: Rare, but usually true among adults who, as kids, got caught in that lie hundreds of times and learned their lesson. One exception: it is a common lie among men who have to go shopping, with their wives, for new slacks or underwear. Among kids, it’s almost always a lie, especially if there’s a spelling test or an oral book-report today.
— This is delicious, darling: This was a common untruth among husbands decades ago, in the lima beans, oleo-margarine, and mashed potatoes era. Nowadays, thanks to Julia Child and other TV cooking programs, and a lot of pretty good frozen food options, it is usually true, except in families where husbands now cook and wives know that, if they’re honest about the fried chicken, they re-inherit the apron.
— This term paper is entirely my own work: What was once, among high-school and college students, about as often untrue as true, has become, with all kinds of cheating sites available online, increasingly false. However, teacher access to on-line counter-plagiarism measures could produce a true-false standoff.
— It’s not you, it’s me: Surprisingly common, and usually untrue. We all know that our boyfriend or girlfriend is the cause of the break-up. So, why would we carry around an I’m guilty sign we know is untrue? Probably because hell hath no fury like a partner scorned. We don’t want our ex bad-mouthing us around town while we’re working on a new affair.
— I didn’t do it; he (or she) did it: Among kids, this is a reflex and almost always untrue. Among adults, it’s usually true. They know that, as kids, they were regularly caught in the lie, and the punishment for lying was worse than for the deed itself. Besides, adults know that, these days, their every action is going to be captured on some kind of device, so what’s the point of lying?
— I want to spend more time with my family: Though this is a rare utterance, and made only by (or on behalf of) a prominent public figure, it is the biggest lie on the face of the earth. No one has ever voluntarily left a high-profile, influential, high-paying position simply to stay at home doing the dishes, repainting the den, and changing diapers. George Washington would have wept.
Conclusion: This was a small, random, rigorously unscientific sampling. More research is needed. Still, it does suggest that, as in our vocabulary, lying is more common than truth-telling, though probably not at a forty-to-one ratio.
Perhaps we should try to come up with more, and more forceful, words for being truthful so that untruth doesn’t dominate our speech, or our actions, quite so much. Words reflect life, but they also shape it. Just ask the teen-ager who accused his sister of denting the car fender although, as his father informed him, she was at a Girl Scout meeting when it happened.