AskDefine | Define prevaricating

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /prɪˈværɪkeɪt/


  1. To shift or turn from the direct course, or from truth; to evade the truth; to waffle or be (intentionally) ambiguous.
    • The people saw the politician prevaricate every day.
  2. To speak with equivocation; to shuffle; to quibble.
  3. To collude, as where an informer colludes with the defendant, and makes a sham prosecution.


  • 1878 — Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native, Book 4, ch 1
    At the moment of her departure he could prevaricate no longer, and, confessing to the gambling, told her the truth as far as he knew it--that the guineas had been won by Wildeve.


To shift or turn from the direct course, or from truth
To speak with equivocation; to shuffle; to quibble
To collude

See also

Extensive Definition

A lie is a type of deception in the form of an untruthful statement with the intention to deceive, often with the further intention to maintain a secret or reputation, to protect someone's feelings from getting hurt, or to avoid punishment. To lie is to state something one believes is false with the intention that it be taken for the truth by someone else. A liar is a person who is lying, who has previously lied, or who tends by nature to lie repeatedly.
Lying is typically used to refer to deceptions in oral or written communication. Other forms of deception, such as disguises or forgeries, are generally not considered lies, though the underlying intent may be the same; however, even a true statement can be considered a lie if the person making that statement is doing so to deceive. In this situation, it is the intent of being untruthful rather than the truthfulness of the statement itself that is considered.


Types of lies

The various types of lies include the following:
A bald-faced (or barefaced) lie is a lie that is told when it is obvious to all concerned that it is a lie. For example, a child who has chocolate all over his face and denies that he has not eaten the last piece of chocolate cake, is a bald-faced liar.
One lies by omission by omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions.
A lie-to-children is an expression, or more specifically a euphemism, that describes a lie told to make an adult subject acceptable to children. A common example is "The stork brought you."
A white lie would cause no discord if it were uncovered and offers some benefit to the liar, the hearer, or both. White lies are often used to avoid offense, such as telling someone that you think that their new outfit looks good when you actually think that it is actually a horrible excuse for an outfit. In this case, the lie is told to avoid the harmful implications and realistic implications of the truth. As a concept, it is largely defined by local custom and cannot be clearly separated from regular lies with any authority. As such, the term may have differing meanings in different cultures. Lies that are harmless but told for no reason are generally not called white lies.
A noble lie is one that would normally cause discord if it were uncovered, but that offers some benefit to the liar and perhaps assist in an orderly society and thus potentially gives some benefit to others also. It is often told to maintain law, order and safety. A noble lie usually has the effect of helping an elite maintain power.
An emergency lie is a different kind of white lie, which is employed when the truth may not be told because, for example, harm to a third party would come of it. For example, a neighbour might lie to an enraged husband about the whereabouts of his unfaithful wife, because said husband might reasonably be expected to inflict physical injury should he encounter his wife in person. :Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law or in any of various sworn statements in writing. Perjury is a crime because the witness has sworn to tell the truth and, for the credibility of the court, witness testimony must be relied on as being truthful.
Bluffing is an act of deception that is not usually seen as immoral because it takes place in the context of a game where this kind of deception is consented to in advance by the players. For instance, a gambler who deceives other players into thinking he has different cards than he really does, or an athlete who indicates he will move left and then actually dodges right, is not considered to be lying. In these situations, deception is accepted as a tactic and even expected.
A misleading statement is one where there isn't an outright lie, but still has the purpose of making someone believe in an untruth.
"Dissemble" is a polite term for lying, though some might consider it to refer to being merely misleading. It is most commonly considered to be a euphemism for lying.
An exaggeration occurs when the most fundamental aspect(s) of a statement is true, but the degree to which it is true is not correct.
Jocose lies are lies that are meant in jest and are usually understood as such by all present parties. Sarcasm can be one example. A more elaborate example is seen in storytelling traditions that are present in some places, where the humour comes from the storyteller's insistence that he or she is telling the absolute truth despite all evidence to the contrary (i.e., tall tale). There is debate about whether these are "real lies", and different philosophers hold different views (see below).
A Bragging is a kind of lie told to build up a reputation, such as saying "I own a billion-dollar car and house."

Augustine's taxonomy of lies

The origin of the word "lie" is generally ascribed to Middle English from around 900 AD. . However, Augustine of Hippo wrote his book De Mendacio "Of Lying" as part of his work: "Retractions" in 395 AD. He had previously written two other books on the subject: a "Book on Lying" and "Against Lying". In "Of Lying" he writes that he is reconciling his two previous works, and addressing the great question of lying, which he felt was an urgent need of his time. He began: "Magna quæstio est de Mendacio." From his text it can be derived that St Augustine divided lies into eight kinds, listed in order of descending severity:
  1. Lies in religious teaching.
  2. Lies that harm others and help no one.
  3. Lies that harm others and help someone.
  4. Lies told for the pleasure of lying.
  5. Lies told to "please others in smooth discourse."
  6. Lies that harm no one and that help someone.
  7. Lies that harm no one and that save someone's life.
  8. Lies that harm no one and that save someone's "purity."
Augustine believed that "jocose lies" are not, in fact, lies.

Psychology of lying

The capacity to lie is noted early and nearly universally in human development. Social psychology and developmental psychology are concerned with the theory of mind, which people employ to simulate another's reaction to their story and determine if a lie will be believable. The most commonly cited milestone, what is known as Machiavellian intelligence, is at the age of about four and a half years, when children begin to be able to lie convincingly. Before this, they seem simply unable to comprehend that anyone doesn't see the same view of events that they do -- and seem to assume that there is only one point of view: their own -- that must be integrated into any given story.
Young children learn from experience that stating an untruth can avoid punishment for misdeeds, before they develop the theory of mind necessary to understand why it works. In this stage of development, children will sometimes tell fantastic and unbelievable lies because they lack the conceptual framework to judge whether a statement is believable or even to understand the concept of believability.
When children first learn how lying works, they lack the moral understanding of when to refrain from doing it. It takes years of watching people lie and the results of lies to develop a proper understanding. Propensity to lie varies greatly between children, some doing so habitually and others being habitually honest. Habits in this regard are likely to change into early adulthood.
Pseudologia fantastica is a term applied by psychiatrists to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying.

Morality of lying

The philosophers Saint Augustine, as well as Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, condemned all lying. However, Thomas Aquinas also had an argument for lying. According to all three, there are no circumstances in which one may lie. One must be murdered, suffer torture, or endure any other hardship, rather than lie, even if the only way to protect oneself is to lie. Each of these philosophers gave several arguments against lying, all compatible with each other. Among the more important arguments are:
  1. Lying is a perversion of the natural faculty of speech, the natural end of which is to communicate the thoughts of the speaker.
  2. When one lies, one undermines trust in society.

Lying in the Bible

The Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible both contain statements that God cannot lie (Num 23:19, Ps 89:35, Hab. 2:3, Heb 6:13-18).
The Old Testament adds that God hates a lying tongue (Prov 6:16-19, Ps. 5:6) and forbids men to lie (Lev 19:11, Pr. 14:5, Pr. 30:6, Zep 3:13 ) or to take refuge in lies (Isa 28:15, Da 11:27). Most famously, lying is forbidden in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not bear false witness" (Exodus , Deuteronomy ) a specific reference to perjury, but taken to have wider application.
Old Testament accounts of lying include:
  • The Hebrew midwives lied to the king of Egypt rather than carry out his order to kill all male Hebrew babies; the midwives did this because they “feared God” (Exodus 1:15–20).
  • Rahab lied to the king of Jericho about hiding the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2:4–5) and was not killed with those who were disobedient because of her faith (Hebrews 11:31).
  • Delilah repeatedly accused Samson of lying to her (Jg. 16:10, 13) as she interrogated him about the source of his strength.
  • Abraham instructs his wife, Sarai, to lie to the Egyptians and say that she is his sister (Gen 12:10), which leads to the Lord punishing the Egyptians (Gen 12:17-19).
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the Devil as the father of lies (John 8:44) and Paul commands "Do not lie to one another" (Colossians 3:9, Cf.Leviticus 19:11). Jesus would seem to tell a lie to the Apostles in , when He says "Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come," but then later on goes up to attend the same festival. However, this is not a lie, because he wasn't ready at that moment of time to go to the festival. Jesus did not say that he was not going to the festival at all-it was that he did not yet go to the festival.
Among those who conclude that the Bible contains lies and intentional untruths is Thomas Jefferson. He edited his own version of the bible and omitted what he considered to be falsehoods. In describing the Bible, Jefferson wrote of "so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture", "roguery", "dupes and impostors", "corruptor" and "falsifications".

Consequences of lying

Once a lie has been told there can be two alternative consequences: it may be discovered or remain undiscovered.
  • Discovery of a lie tends to discredit other statements by the same speaker and can lead to social or legal sanctions against the speaker, such as ostracizing or conviction for perjury. Another consequence of a discovered lie is that it undermines trust which is a binding agent of human relations. One trusts that another is truthful. When a lie is discovered then the state of mind and behavior of the lie teller is no longer predictable. Trust then decreases and is perhaps even completely withdrawn.
  • An undiscovered lie is a latent danger to the liar who is probably aware that it may be discovered, especially if that would lead to the sanctions above, as when the liar has obtained some unjust advantage by telling the lie.

Deception and lies in other species

The capacity to lie has also been claimed to be possessed by non-humans in language studies with Great Apes. One famous case was that of Koko the gorilla; confronted by her handlers after a tantrum in which she had torn a steel sink out of its moorings, she signed in American Sign Language, "cat did it," pointing at her tiny kitten. It is unclear if this was a joke or a genuine attempt at blaming her tiny pet. Deceptive body language, such as feints that mislead as to the intended direction of attack or flight, is observed in many species including wolves. A mother bird deceives when it pretends to have a broken wing to divert the attention of a perceived predator -- including unwitting humans -- from the eggs in its nest to itself, most notably the Killdeer.

Paradoxes about lying

Within any scenario where dualistic (e.g., yes/no, black/white) answers are always given, a person who we know is consistently lying would paradoxically be a source of truth. There are many such paradoxes, the most famous one being known as the liar paradox, commonly expressed as "This sentence is a lie," or "This sentence is false." The so-called Epimenides paradox — "All Cretans are liars," as stated by Epimenides the Cretan — is a forerunner of this, though its status as a paradox is disputed. A class of related logic puzzles are known as knights and knaves, in which the goal is to determine who of a group of people is lying and who is telling the truth.

Lie detection

Some people may be better "lie detectors" than others, better able to distinguish a lie by facial expression, cadence of speech, and other methods. According to David J. Lieberman PhD in Never Be Lied to Again: How to Get the Truth in Five Minutes or Less in Any Conversation or Situation, these methods can be learned. Some methods of questioning may be more likely to elicit the truth eg "when was the last time you smoked marijuana?" is more likely to get a truthful answer than "do you smoke pot?". Asking the question most likely to get the information you want is a skill and can be learned. Avoiding vague questioning will help avoid lies of omission or vagueness.
The question of whether lies can reliably be detected through nonverbal means is a subject of some controversy.
  • Polygraph "lie detector" machines measure the physiological stress a subject endures in a number of measures while he/she gives statements or answers questions. Spikes in stress are purported to indicate lying. The accuracy of this method is widely disputed, and in several well-known cases it was proven to have been deceived. Nonetheless, it remains in use in many areas, primarily as a method for eliciting confessions or employment screening. Polygraph results are not admissible as court evidence and are generally perceived to be pseudoscience. *Various truth drugs have been proposed and used anecdotally, though none are considered very reliable. The CIA attempted to find a universal "truth serum" in the MK-ULTRA project, but it was largely a fiasco.

Representations of lying

  • Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is a wooden puppet often led into trouble by his propensity to lie. His nose grows with every lie. A long nose has thus become a caricature of liars.
  • In the film Liar Liar, the lawyer Fletcher Reed (Jim Carrey) cannot lie for 24 hours due to a wish of his son which magically came true.
  • In the 1985 Max Headroom, the title character comments that one can always tell when a politician lies because "their lips move". The joke has been widely repeated and rephrased.
  • In the film Big Fat Liar, the story which producer Marty Wolf, a notorious and proud liar himself, steals from student Jason Shepard tells of a character whose lies become out of control to the point each lie he tells causes him to grow in size.

Covering up Lies

Sir Walter Scott's famous couplet "Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive!" describes the often difficult procedure of covering up a lie so that it is not detected at some future time.
In "Human, All Too Human" philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying may do so only because of the difficulty involved in maintaining the lie. This is consistent with his general philosophy that divides or ranks people according to strength and ability; thus, some people tell the truth only out of weakness. A similar explanation is given by Paul Ekman in Why Don't We Catch Liars?

Evolution, game theory, and the lie

Meanwhile, although most human societies have developed moral, ethical, or religious codes prohibiting lying, it would appear that other animals on this planet engage in deception quite regularly and that the deceit has been the result of and promoted by all the usual evolutionary forces.

Deception by predators and prey

Specifically, predation often employs deception, as does avoidance of predation. A predator is deceptive if in the process of acquiring prey it conceals its location, uses camouflage capabilities of its skin and appendages, or dangles an appendage as a bait. A prey is deceptive if it uses camouflage to conceal itself or make it seem to be larger than it is or seem to be another species that is poisonous or distasteful to the predator (compare viceroy butterfly to monarch butterfly).
Such capabilities to deceive likely developed very gradually during evolution and likely began as very small changes in the appearance or behavior of some organisms. As the changes brought advantage to the organism it may therefore have increased in number due to that advantage, and due to continued pressure from a predator or scarcity of prey the advantage locked in and became a trait of that creature.

Game Theory of Evolution

This incorporation of deception into schemes of evolutionary advantage is a concept treated in the study of evolutionary game theory. Evolutionary game theory assumes that creatures are often in resource conflict or in predator/prey relationships with each other and develop strategies for advantage gain or loss reduction.

Innate or reasoned behaviour?

These strategies may or may not be the result of some reasoning capabilities of the creature. In some cases the environment interacting with the way a creature has evolved so far creates the strategies for the creature without it needing any reasoning faculties. In other cases, there may be a combination of some reasoning and some environmentally formed deceptive abilities. The crocodile seems to know that if it drifts slowly, like a log, towards a wildebeest drinking at the edge of the river the wildebeest will not be alarmed and run away. The crocodile both resembles a log, having been shaped that way by evolutionary forces, and has some reasoning faculties.

So-called animal "cunning"

Over eons this ability to deceive became built into and a natural part of many species. Humans have used the word "cunning" to represent this ability in the non-human animal world.

Famous fairy tales based on lying

  • Adler, J. E., “Lying, deceiving, or falsely implicating”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 94 (1997), 435-452.
  • Aquinas, T., St., “Question 110: Lying”, in Summa Theologiae (II.II), Vol. 41, Virtues of Justice in the Human Community (London, 1972).
  • Augustine, St., "On Lying" and "Against Lying", in R. J. Deferrari, ed., Treatises on Various Subjects (New York, 1952).
  • Bok, S., Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 2d ed. (New York, 1989).
  • Carson, Thomas L. (2006). "The Definition of Lying." Nous 40:284-306.
  • Chisholm, R. M., and T. D. Feehan, “The intent to deceive”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 74 (1977),143-159.
  • Davids, P. H., Bruce, F.F., Brauch, M.T., & W.C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 1996).
  • Fallis, Don. (2008). "What is Lying?" Paper presented at the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association.
  • Flyvbjerg, B., "Design by Deception." Harvard Design Magazine, no. 22, Spring/Summer 2005, 50-59.
  • Frankfurt, H. G., “The Faintest Passion”, in Necessity, Volition and Love (Cambridge, MA: CUP, 1999).
  • Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  • Kant, I., Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, The Metaphysics of Morals and "On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy", in Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, eds. Mary Gregor and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: CUP, 1986).
  • Lakoff, George, Don't Think of an Elephant, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
  • Mahon, J. E., “Kant on Lies, Candour and Reticence”, Kantian Review, Vol. 7 (2003), 101-133.
  • Mahon, J. E., “The Definition of Lying and Deception”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008).
  • Mahon, J. E., “Lying”, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Vol. 5 (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Macmillan Reference, 2006), p. 618-19
  • Mahon, J. E., “Kant and the Perfect Duty to Others Not to Lie”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 4 (2006), 653-685.
  • Mahon, J. E., “Kant and Maria von Herbert: Reticence vs. Deception”, Philosophy, Vol. 81, No. 3 (2006), 417-44.
  • Mannison, D. S., “Lying and Lies”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 47 (1969), 132-144.
  • O'Neill, Barry. (2003). "A Formal System for Understanding Lies and Deceit." Revision of a talk for the Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Economics, June 2000.
  • Siegler, F. A., “Lying”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 3 (1966), 128-136.
  • Sorensen, Roy. (2007). "Bald-Faced Lies! Lying Without the Intent to Deceive." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 88:251-64.
prevaricating in Arabic: كذب
prevaricating in Aymara: K'ari
prevaricating in Bosnian: Laž
prevaricating in Breton: Gaou
prevaricating in Czech: Lež
prevaricating in Danish: Løgn
prevaricating in German: Lüge
prevaricating in Estonian: Valetamine
prevaricating in Modern Greek (1453-): Ψέμα
prevaricating in Emiliano-Romagnolo: Bàla
prevaricating in Spanish: Mentira
prevaricating in Esperanto: Mensogo
prevaricating in French: Mensonge
prevaricating in Scottish Gaelic: Breug
prevaricating in Croatian: Laž
prevaricating in Indonesian: Bohong
prevaricating in Hebrew: שקר לבן
prevaricating in Lithuanian: Melas
prevaricating in Hungarian: Hazugság
prevaricating in Dutch: Leugen
prevaricating in Japanese: 嘘
prevaricating in Norwegian: Løgn
prevaricating in Occitan (post 1500): Messorga
prevaricating in Polish: Kłamstwo
prevaricating in Portuguese: Mentira
prevaricating in Romanian: Minciună
prevaricating in Russian: Ложь
prevaricating in Albanian: Gënjeshtra
prevaricating in Sicilian: Fannonia
prevaricating in Simple English: Lie
prevaricating in Slovak: Lož
prevaricating in Finnish: Valehtelu
prevaricating in Swedish: Lögn
prevaricating in Turkish: Yalan
prevaricating in Yiddish: ליגנט
prevaricating in Chinese: 谎言
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