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John Simkin

Definition of the verb "to lie"

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There is an interesting letter in today’s Guardian concerning the definition of the verb to lie. Tim Francis points out that his dictionary gives two definitions: (1) to speak untruthfully with the intent to mislead or deceive: (2) To convey a false impression to practice deception. As Tim points out, Lord Butler used the first definition when reporting on Tony Blair’s statements on WMD in Iraq. However, this is something that is almost impossible to prove. How is anyone able to enter the mind of someone making a statement? It would only possible if they actually wrote down the fact that they intended to mislead. As we know from Butler’s report, Blair did not keep minutes of the meetings he had with his advisers. Therefore it is impossible to prove.

Does this mean we cannot accuse students of lying unless we have written evidence that shows that they intended to mislead or deceive?

In a court of law jurors often have to make decisions about whether the person accused of the crime is lying or not. In virtually all cases, they rely on the second definition of lying rather than the first one.

It Butler used the second definition of the word: “to convey a false impression to practice deception” he would have had great difficulty in not saying Blair lied.

The other issue concerns lying by leaving out words. For example, we know that one of the reasons Blair comments were misleading is that he removed the caveats from the statements included in the original intelligence reports. Does this mean someone is lying when they do this?

Say a man called Bill Smith tells me that he thinks he has won the lottery but will not know for certain until he gets home and he gets the chance to check his ticket. If I go home and tell my wife that Bill Smith has won the lottery am I guilty of lying? If he has won the lottery the question is irrelevant. However, if it turns out that Bill Smith was mistaken, then my wife is likely to want to know why I dropped the caveat. This would not cause too many problems as I obviously was not seeking to gain advantage by dropping the caveat. If it was another issue, where I did gain an advantage, then I suspect I would be seen as a xxxx.

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"I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Politicians ahem fail to tell the truth all the time. The issue with Blair is the enormity of the consequences of his utterances over Iraq.

I once had to apologise to an OFSTED inspector who had made a blatantly untrue statement because I could not prove that he knew any better. I had to concede that he might not be lying, he might be unbelievably ignorant.

Likewise we cannot prove that Blair didn't actually believe that Iraq had Weapons of Mass destruction which posed an immediate threat. Perhaps he thought that they had these weapons which they would use as a last resort if invaded so the best thing to do was to invade them.

So either a xxxx or criminally insane <_<

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Guest Andrew Moore

It's easy to place politicians before the bar in this way. But they are not all self-serving or hypocritical. It appears that Mr. Blair wanted to believe in the existence of some devastating weapons in Iraq, and also that he did believe this - trusting in reports about which many of us were more sceptical. We can now duly remind him, "We told you so". But that big mistake does not make him a xxxx, nor insane.

I know myself well enough to doubt whether I could keep my conscience clear for long while holding down any such high office of state. I know that, like Mr. Blair, I often represent things I remember in ways that make me more comfortable with them, by the kind of selection or emphasis to which John draws attention.

By almost any comparative yardstick, our leaders and civil servants are very good - we live in a country where we do not need to bribe officials, and where we enjoy amazing peace and security. Most of the world's population would be very happy to live in the country, and to get away from leaders and officials who really are liars and criminals in a very explicit sense.

The popular notion that dictionaries define the lexicon is simply mistaken, except in the case of a small number of words such as numbers and prepositions. Dictionaries record descriptions of the meanings observed in usage. It would be perfectly possible to find a sense in which some writers or speakers use "xxxx", that corresponds to things that certain politicians do. But that's a truism, for the rather obvious reason that the writers want to call the politicians liars, and so adapt the lexis to fit their account of X's supposed equivocation.

I like Bill Clinton, but would never suggest that his standard of personal veracity is that of all politicians, and therefore of Mr. Blair. I like Mr. Blair less (he is rather priggish and Puritanical), but reckon him to be someone who takes the notion of truth-telling seriously. (And unlike Mr. Clinton - "a hard dog to keep on the porch", according to Mrs. C. - Tony Blair is fairly wholesome in his personal conduct.)

It might be worth thinking about the leaders (living or dead) for whom you would readily swap Tony Blair. What suggestions do you have? I think that both John Smith and Gordon Brown had/have a stronger sense of social justice.

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Liars usually have motives for their lies. What motives might Tony Blair have had for lying (or believing what he wanted to believe ;) ) about Iraq?

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Guest Andrew Moore

I think we know the answer to Andy's question: Mr. Bair wanted to be able to support the US administration's policy, which made some kind of sense only if one believed that there were powerful weapons that Saddam Hussain was able to use at a few minutes' notice. I think it must have needed some interesting mental gymnastics to hold that belief...

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I think we know the answer to Andy's question: Mr. Bair wanted to be able to support the US administration's policy, which made some kind of sense only if one believed that there were powerful weapons that Saddam Hussain was able to use at a few minutes' notice. I think it must have needed some interesting mental gymnastics to hold that belief...

I can only agree with you Andrew if we accept the notion that Mr Blair is a very right wing person sharing the "ideology" of the very worst part of the US Republican Party.

Truely extraordinary for a British Labour Party Leader :(

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