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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 14:27 GMT
Untruth: I cannot tell a lie

untruth, n, • 1. A false statement. esp. Polit. (telling an untruth, a pack of untruths, a tissue of untruths).

USAGE: Jack Straw, Home Secretary. "I regarded Peter [Mandelson] as being a very good colleague and a very good minister, but ... there is no doubt by his own admission that he told an untruth [when he denied making a phone call in support of the Hinduja passport application]."

CLARIFICATION: Clare Short, cabinet minister. "He wasn't accurate, didn't speak the truth."

NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH: A lie (n, An intentionally false statement) - see Sir Anthony Hammond's statement on Mr Mandelson - "I am happy to accept as genuine his belief that he does not recall that telephone call." See also fig. 1.

OR A POLITICAL HATCHET JOB: "You know I can't tell a lie." The young George Washington, later to be first US president, asked by his "Pa" if he had cut down a cherry tree. He had.


fig. 1. A = Untruths, B = Lies
THE PHILOSOPHY OF UNTRUTH: "I may make a false statement when my purpose is to hide from another what is in my mind and when the latter can assume that such is my purpose, his own purpose being to make wrong use of the truth." Immanuel Kant (in Lectures On Ethics).

CONTESTED PHILOSOPHY: The Lectures on Ethics came early in Kant's thinking career, and were hurriedly transcribed by the students attending them.

Kant scholar Professor Simon Blackburn says the philosopher never thought it ethical to tell an untruth.

He was less harsh on those who were "evasive or reticent" or those who use non-verbal bluffs which gives their opponent a chance to defend themselves with reason.

THE DANGERS OF UNTRUTH: "Verbal untruth has the power to render us neurotic." Hugh Brody (in The Other Side of Eden. Hunter-gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World).

Mr Brody says our ancient forefathers told the truth, and modern man's departure from this creed has encouraged mental instability. (cf. Downing Street's Alastair Campbell said Mr Mandelson was "curiously detached" at the height of the passport affair.)


Reader Manu, from Belgium, adds: The story about George Washington and the cherry tree is, err, an untruth. It was invented some time after his death.

Reader Jeremy Rawson asks: Can one be economical with the untruth?

Untruths, damned untruths and comments can be submitted to the E-cyclopedia by clicking here.

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