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shameless pleading






Don’t look at me.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word “lie”? — Cristy Clark.

That’s a good question, but you really ought to give us a “backstory,” some details about why you’re asking it.  You could say, for instance, “I was watching TV the other night and discovered that my favorite politician had been lying to us about taking bribes from the Indonesian pencil cartel, and I was so upset about the little schoolchildren being stuck with substandard pencils that I had to go lie on the bed.  Are these two kinds of “lie” related, and where does ‘lie’ come from, anyhow?”  See how that makes the question more vivid?  By the way, you can get bonus points for including cats in your tale, so if you don’t have a cat, just say the word and I’ll send you a few.

As you can probably infer from the little fable I concocted, there’s a bit of ambiguity in your question, because there are actually two kinds of “lie” in the English language.  There’s the “lie” meaning “untruth or falsehood,” which can be either a noun or a verb, but there’s also the verb “to lie,” meaning “to recline, to position oneself horizontally.”  The two “lies” are, fortunately, entirely separate English words, with completely different origins and histories.  I say “fortunately” because I just finished a column explaining (I hope) how the one word “present” can mean both “the time that is happening right now” and “a nice gift on Christmas morning” (as well as a bunch of other things).  It’s much easier when the two words look alike but have no tangled historical relationship to decode.

Both kinds of “lie” are, however, very old words that were handed down to us from Old English.  The “lie” meaning, as a noun, “the deliberate misrepresentation of facts in order to deceive” comes from an ancient Germanic root meaning “to tell a lie,” as does the verb “to lie,” which first appeared in Old English as “leogan.”  The key to “lying” is, of course, intent.  A “lie” is a blatant attempt to deceive the listener;  if I tell you that it’s snowing outside and it actually stopped an hour ago, I am probably not “lying.”  A “lie” usually must be deliberate and of some consequence.  “Your hair looks fabulous” may be a little “fib” (or “white lie”), but it doesn’t attain the level of malevolent dishonesty of an outright “lie.”

The other kind of “lie,” meaning “to recline horizontally,” exists primarily as a verb in modern English (although a noun form of “lie” in a related sense is used in golf and other sports to describe the position of the ball — how it “lies” — in relation to the course or playing field).  This verb “to lie” also comes from a very old Germanic root, in this case meaning “to lie down.”

One slightly sticky aspect of this “lie” comes from confusion with the separate transitive verb “to lay,” meaning “to put or set down” (“Lay down your gun and raise your hands”).  This confusion comes in part because the past tense of “to lie” is also “to lay.”  The best way to keep the two verbs straight is to remember that “to lay” is a transitive verb, one that must act on an object (“Lay an egg”), while “to lie” is intransitive and requires no object (“Go lie on the couch and I’ll get some aspirin”).

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