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Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Economy of Truth

The phrase ‘being economical with the truth,’ is a Godsend to politicians, banned from calling another MP a down-and-out liar during parliamentary debates. The liar thus becomes respectable, his sin venial, obscured in the phrase.

But ‘truth’ is a slippery thing, something entirely distrusted in the English language. Many phrases, usually prefacing the statement to come illustrate this:

‘I can’t lie…’ suggesting I’d damn well like to.

“I can’t tell a lie…’ again, suggesting regret

‘I can’t lie to you…’ more resonant because personal.

I particularly dislike the phrase ‘To tell you the truth…’ I mean, why would you do otherwise?

But this brandishing of ‘truth’, like a shield or a matador’s cape has many permutations:

‘Truth be told…’ here truth becomes something managed, rationed and doled out reluctantly.

‘Without a word of a lie…’ Suggesting the norm is otherwise.

‘To be honest…’ Similarly suggests that this is something different from the normal way you go about things.

‘To be quite honest…’ suggests partial honesty and grudging at that.

‘To be honest with you…’ is very similar to ‘I can’t lie to you’ but marginally more positive. Whereas the latter suggests real pain at having to forgo the lie, the former suggests that whilst he may be less than honest with others, he’s making an exception of you.

Then there is: ‘God’s own truth…’ Suggesting I might lie, but God doesn’t.

And whilst we’re on a religious theme we have the incipient guilt-trip: “I don’t like tea, I must confess.” Why must you confess? Were you considering hiding the fact you didn’t like tea?

Finally there are the variants of: “Ain’t that the truth…’ an Americanism, suggesting truth as bad news and accepted with due resignation.

The London version is shorter: ‘innit’ a more sullen and challenging response to ‘truth’. For example: ‘Coppers are bent, innit.’ Delivered correctly it carries aggression: ‘Yes, it is the bloody truth and I bloody well don’t like it!’

My favourite is a Welsh variant found around Swansea. There they have the habit of turning everything into a question. ‘A pint of beer, is it?' Bear in mind, it is not the bartender asking whether you want a pint of beer. It is the customer asking for one. Here truth becomes something to be questioned; a form of existentialist angst. I like to think he stares at the beer for some time before drinking it.

Schrodinger's pint.

Is this linguistic distrust of truth found in other languages?

4 comments:

Claudia Del Balso said...

Truth be told, I use this phrase from time to time ;) LOL! And yes, this word is a favorite of politicians, lawyers, and the clergy (kind of ironic if you ask me). To answer your question, I can tell you that in Italian, French, and Spanish is only used when necessary and not gratuitously. Perhaps we use the word "honestly" in Spanish and "frankly" in Italian, and "truly" in French when trying to emphasize or reiterate.

Mike Keyton said...

Claudia, it's amazing what we actually say without thinking. But judging from what you say about the French, Italian and Spanish, maybe its a reflection of their innate honesty...or they feel less guilty about it :)

Maria Zannini said...

Ref: There they have the habit of turning everything into a question.

Is that really mostly a Welsh variant? It seems almost every Brit I've ever talked to seems to answer with a question. I find it charming.

Shirley Wells said...

Oh dear. I often use several of those... :)

I do think the habit of turning everything into a question is spreading across the UK.