Words: Lie

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WHEN William Waldegrave declared last week that a minister might sometimes have to mislead MPs, he did not utter the terrible three-letter word. That was left to his detractors. He himself called it untruth. Lie is a very dirty word in Westminster, where they take the Ninth Commandment seriously, whatever they may think of the others. Mr Waldegrave was not being mealy-mouthed. An untruth is not the same as a lie. An untruth may spring from honourable motives; a lie never.

But lie looks so much better in headlines. When Sir Robert (now Lord) Armstrong told an Australian court in 1986 that his evidence 'contained a misleading impression, not a lie - it was being economical with the truth', it was immediately assumed that he was juggling with words. But Sir Robert, an innocent abroad, was quoting Edmund Burke, who had made a clear distinction between 'falsehood and delusion' on the one hand and 'economy of truth' on the other. No doubt Sir Robert, like the mandarin he was, thought his audience would recognise the reference. They didn't, and being 'economical with the truth' is now a facetious synonym for lying.

Churchill's 'terminological inexactitude' has been similarly misunderstood. As a junior minister in the Colonial Office, he used the phrase during a Commons debate in 1906 about the indentured labour of Chinese coolies in South Africa, which many MPs had called 'slavery'. The word could not be used in this context, he said, 'without some risk of terminological inexactitude'. This didn't have anything to do with lying, but people later took the splendid phrase to mean that it did.

Lie is no idle word. It took Cardinal Newman, when he thought he had been accused by Charles Kingsley of condoning lies, more than 100,000 words to answer what he called 'this grave and gratuitous slander'.