Lying is linguistic

« previous post | next post »

Can you tell a lie nonlinguistically? That is, is it reasonable that certain actions or even physical objects should be regarded as embodying lies? A couple of clearly somewhat dishonest examples:

  • In the Best Western El Rancho Inn on El Camino Real in Millbrae (Millbrae sounds Scottish but it is near the San Francisco International Airport; I am waiting for a flight to take me back to Edinburgh) the Colombian-made cotton towels and facecloths bear a label stating the brand name "Five Star". El Rancho is nice, but it is a standard-grade California motel, not five star. Could the towel company be trying to misinform me about the quality I am enjoying?

  • In the Office Depot store across the street from the El Rancho there is a demo of wireless printing from an HP laptop to an HP All-In-One printer / scanner / fax / copier / toaster. The sign brags about the built-in wireless networking and says you should open WordPad on the laptop and type something and then click "File | Print", and what you typed will magically appear on the nearby printer. But I checked the laptop more closely. Discreetly plugged into the side of it is a USB cable. I traced the cable. It runs to the printer. There is no wireless connection at all. Could they be trying to mislead me about how well wireless printer networking works?

For a clarification I turned to a nice paper by Don Fallis called "What is lying?" in the Journal of Philosophy last January (volume CVI [J Phil is one of the last institutions struggling to keep Roman numerals alive], 29-56, reading version of the manuscript available here). Fallis's view (defended against a large range of alternatives) is that you lie to a person X when, and only when, you assert P to X in a situation where you believe P to be false and you believe you are in a situation where the usual norm of not stating falsehoods is in effect. (The latter part covers all sorts of odd situations like saying "My name is Bond; James Bond" when acting Bond in a movie: during filming, the norm barring falsehoods is not in effect. But if you said the same thing to someone you met in a bar, and were not saying it ironically, and your name is not James Bond, you would be lying. And so on.)

Manufacturers' brand names on towels do not assert (they are merely names). So that lets the towels off the hook (excuse the figure of speech; my towel actually is on the hook, but never mind). And nothing in the Office Depot sign actually asserts "Your document will then be printed wirelessly", or "No cable connects this laptop to the printer beside it". So there is no lying there. (Well, the laptop is lying there, but that's a different verb lexeme; see my post on lie/lied, lie/lay, and lay/laid.)

Fallis's account makes it definitional that a physical object or a hardware demo or a mask or a false license plate or a wolf in sheep's clothing cannot be lying. That, probably rightly, is the standard view: lying is linguistic.

I will leave comments open below, but try to tell the truth.


  1. Nathan said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    This is a lie.

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    Isn't that, after all, the essence of marketing, preconception, and prejudice–the exchange of the cover for the book?

  3. David Scrimshaw said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    What about fake Rolexes and knock-off designer clothing?

  4. Philip Spaelti said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    You can always try suing the watch.

  5. Ethan said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    I don't think "lying" is a line you can draw — I think there are shades of dishonesty, which extend all the way to "letting someone believe something you know to be false", which is even a stronger constraint than your "implying something that you know to be false".

    Saying "I bike to work every day" if you never bike to work is dishonest. Wearing a bike helmet to work when you didn't bike is probably somewhat dishonest. But (in my humble opinion) being in a conversation where someone says "It must be hard to bike to work every day" and saying "I don't think it's that bad" is still a little bit dishonest.

    I think "lying", defined above, only covers the first. Similarly I think most people would consider only the first unacceptable from casual acquaintances. But I think if your significant other let you believe for months that he/she was biking to work, most people would be pretty upset if they found out otherwise. (But there's always the defense "I never said that!")


  6. Nicki said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Reminds me of Magritte's painting of a pipe, labelled below with the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."

  7. anon said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    "I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:
    I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more." (Dashiell Hammett)

    How is a fake license plate with the numbers 123-456 different from saying, falsely, "My license plate number is 123-456"? Both seem to me equally likely to mislead, and equally intended to mislead.

  8. bulbul said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    But I checked the laptop more closely. Discreetly plugged into the side of it is a USB cable. I traced the cable. It runs to the printer. There is no wireless connection at all.
    The only thing your experiment the way you describe it proves is that there was a wired connection from the laptop to the printer. It definitely does not prove that there was no wireless connection.
    Full disclosure: I work for HP. Not the printer division, thankgodforsmallfavors.

  9. Brett said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    My wife and I discussed a little while back exactly what constituted a "lie," so we could explain it to our daughter. What we came up with was similar to Fallis's criterion. A lie is a statement which the speaker (or writer) believes to be false and which is made with an intent to deceive. I think intent is a better indicator than situation for the following reason. Stating, "My name is Bond; James Bond" at a bar (in most English-speaking countries) generally should not qualify as a lie, since the speaker would know it would be taken as a joke. On the other hand, "My name is Chuck Smith," probably would be a lie (assuming that's not the speaker's real name). Maybe Fallis discussed this distinction, but describing this as situational seems a poor choice. It is not a matter of whether truth is demanded by the situation, but of whether the statement could actually deceive anyone. (Moreover, since intent is crucial in my definition, the inanimate material that carries a false statement can never be lying, but the person who caused it to appear their can.)

    The above is not really the tricky point, however. What's difficult is determining whether a something constitutes a falsehood. Making this determination for a full-sentence statement of fact is probably unproblematic. And clearly, a single word can constitute a lie—for example, giving an untrue answer to a yes or no question. There are many other situations where just a single word or phrase constitutes a factual claim, but it may be difficult to delineate just how strong the expectation of a particular meaning must be if the writer or speaker is to be considered a liar. I would consider an "EMERGENCY EXIT" sign located somewhere other an an exit to be a lie. I would probably say the same about a mislabeled street sign. If somebody switched the name plate on my office door, I'm not so sure. And for the "Five Star" towels, I definitely wouldn't consider the designer a liar. The intent of deceit might be present, but there's not enough of a factual claim to indicate falsehood.

  10. stephen said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    Does this mean the cake in itself cannot be a lie?

  11. MattF said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Well, there's a pretty well-known business with fireflies and firefly predators– Firefly flashes are normally a code for mating; e.g, a firefly male will flash a specific sequence to attract a female of the same species. So, needless to say, a firefly predator has 'figured this out' and flashes the specific code of a different species in order to attract them– but for food, not for reproduction. Here's a brief Wikipedia entry on the subject. There's certainly an intent to deceive, but whether a particular beetle can be charged with deceitfulness is kind of hazy… the neuron count seem low for doing anything deliberately.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    While it may not be relevant to the philosophical definition of "lying", there are some aspects of the definition of perjury that may be relevant.

    In particular, since perjury deals with testimony under oath, it certainly doesn't apply to the brand names of towels (where the concept of false advertising might come up). Perjury is therefore certainly linguistic. But as I understand it, you can under some circumstances be convicted of perjury for what you don't say (see e.g. "Types of truth", 9/7/2007; "Inferences in perjury cases", 1/29/2007).

  13. Chris Brew said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    There's absolutely no problem in having five star (= high-quality) towels in a zero star motel. If the "Five Star" towels are sufficiently nasty to be clearly inadmissable as five star, then that's their problem, not the motel's. It would be clear lie to print "These towels are of five star quality" if they aren't. But no one did that.

    The printer is a different matter. The shop is obviously inviting us to believe that any printing experiments would be demonstrations of the power of wireless networking. Only if the sign says explicitly that they would be such a demo (and the wireless truly is inoperative) are the designers actually lying. Was there a picture of schematic wireless waves going from computer to printer? That would be more lie-like to me, but still not conclusive, since the relation between illustration and the physical objects could be questioned, and undoubtedly would be if it came to court.

  14. Bloix said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Both these examples appear to me to be linguistic – anyway, to involve words ("five star," "wireless").

    But I think you can have completely non-linguistic "lies," or falsehoods, at any rate. E.g., a Chinese infant formula maker adulterates its product with the synthetic chemical melamine because melamine is indistinguishable from protein in the most commonly used tests for formula quality. Melamine is toxic to infants. Thus, the formula maker adulterates his product so that it will provide a false response to a test, even though by doing so it is creating a product that will be harmful in ordinary use. I would call what the formula maker does a "lie" in a broad sense of the word.

  15. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    There is certainly such a thing as nonlinguistic deception. For example, camouflage, wearing a disguise, disguising your voice.

  16. Luke said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."
    Ah, but it isn't a pipe. It's just a painting of a pipe. Hence the title "La trahison des images" – implying that all representations and symbols are in a sense deceptions.

  17. Victoria Martin said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    If I ask someone for directions to Town A, and they point to the road leading to Town B, with the full intention of deceiving me into going the wrong way, I would consider that to be a lie.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    Trademark lawyers use the wonderful mouthful-of-a-phrase "deceptively geographically misdescriptive." If you sell outdoor clothing under the brand name PATAGONIA, you're ok, because it is a safe assumption that the median consumer will not take this as a representation that the goods are actually manufactured in the southern part of Argentina. But if you sell booze under the brand name AULD CLAN MCGREGOR WHISKY, you *may* have a problem (and may need to go to court to find out if you do or don't) even if the label nowhere says Made in Scotland and in fact discloses in fine print that the product was distilled in Keokuk. Similar principles exist for marks whose original literal meaning is not geographically-based; lots of brand names or product names are misdescriptive if taken literally — the question for trademark lawyers is whether consumers are, in context, actually likely to be confused or deceived. I think there's a lot of old case law saying that BLUE RIBBON and GOLD MEDAL and things like that are generally not to be taken as making specific, potentially falsifiable claims of quality as applied to various consumer goods, and I assume FIVE STAR would be covered by the same principles.

    Although once upon a time I was a juror on a criminal trial in Manhattan where the defendant had been engaged in a retail business selling heroin under the brand name CHAMPAGNE FIVE STAR. There was, however, no testimony as to what or any representations about the quality of the product might have been understood by purchasers who were not undercover cops.

    (PS: it's a trademark law convention to write actual or contested trademarks in ALL CAPS. I'm not trying to shout.)

  19. Ellen K. said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    I'm inclinded to think a lie is communication which the communicator thinks to be false and communicates with an intent to deceive. I think a lie doesn't always have to be a spoken statement.

  20. John Baker said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    I'm not convinced that either of your stated examples is really nonlinguistic, since both depend on the interpretations to be given to written statements, viz., the "Five Star" mark on the towels and the sign near the laptop and printer. (In this regard, the demo sign seems a clearer case of a false statement, putting aside for this purpose the very real possibility that there in fact was a wireless as well as a USB connection.) However, there are many nonlinguistic examples that do raise this issue. For example, deceit clearly is involved in the sale of a falsely labeled trade good (e.g., a counterfeit Rolex). To keep the example pure, we can assume that the mislabeled item bears a well-known mark that does not include any writing. If a seller's offer of such a good is not a lie, then I submit that Fallis has produced a definition that is not useful in practice, whether or not it is technically correct.

    In securities law, Rule 10b-5 offers the following formulation (I omit jurisdictional language of no interest for present purposes):

    It shall be unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly . . .

    (a) To employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,

    (b) To make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading, or

    (c) To engage in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person,

    in connection with the purchase or sale of any security.

    Courts have ruled that a person can violate Rule 10b-5 only if he or she has scienter, which is a mental state embracing intent to deceive, manipulate, or defraud.

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    The requirement for language is clearly absurd. The essence of lying (as opposed, for example, to bullshitting) is in the attempt to cause someone to believe what you know not to be true, or might not be true. Language is just the most versatile medium. Sean Connery telling us his name is Bond isn't lying, but it's not because it's an acceptable context, it's because there is no intent to deceive, or any chance of it.

    The laptop isn't lying, but the responsible parties at the store are, presuming the print data really are traversing that cable.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    Two non-verbal examples:

    a. Rolling back an odometer, in the expectation that a prospective purchaser of the used car will draw the conclusion that the car has fewer actual miles on it than it actually does (but without making any express affirmative statement that the number on the odometer is believed to be accurate).

    b. Offering for sale a bottle of beer that was not brewed by the proprietors of Bass Ale or an authorized licensee thereof that nonetheless has a prominent red triangle on the label.

    Whether these fit within the usual meaning of "lie" as a matter of that common word's semantic scope in ordinary English usage seems a borderline case to me. It seems that they should be treated by the law and ordinary private moral judgment in the same way as verbal lies, whatever they're called. What academic philosophy journals want to make of them is not of interest to me, although others are free to be interested in that question.

  23. NW said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    The existence of lexemes 'lie' and 'deceive' is prima facie evidence that lying and deceit are different. Animal mimicry, pointing to the wrong town, labelling beer with a red triangle, counterfeiting banknotes, concealing an affair, are all unproblematically deceit. I don't think I'm being lied to with any of them. I don't think a vervet monkey is talking to me when it communicates "snake". The deceit and the communication may be fully effective; but neither of them contains an assertion in language.

  24. Mark P said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    It seems to me that the key point here is "definitional." If it has to be linguistic to be a lie, then some of the other things mentioned must be something else, like "deceit." I think something like a nod in the wrong direction could be deceit but not a lie, unless you want to infer some linguistic communication. In that case you could extend "lie" to just about any kind of deceit. But I assume the intent of the definition is to restrict rather than extend the meaning.

    @myl – Doesn't the typical witness oath include something like "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? I can see how an omission could be a violation of that oath.

  25. Spectre-7 said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    Despite the fact that the words lying and deceit have different meanings, I don't personally accept their mere existence as prima facie evidence that they're different. That strikes me as a pretty poor assumption.

  26. Spectre-7 said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Or rather, lie and deceive as originally presented. Whoops.

  27. mollymooly said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    As others have pointed out, the name "Five Star" is indeed linguistic, although not an assertion. I think linguistics allows for the association of truth values to entities other than assertions, as with presuppositions.

    Although Mary McCarthy's famous implication that "and" and "the" can be lies seems excessive, they can give rise to truth conditions; consider Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: "I'm *a* god, I'm not *the* God".

  28. peter said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    "J Phil is one of the last institutions struggling to keep Roman numerals alive"

    They and Hollywood. Movies still typically use Roman numerals to declare the year of copyright in the final frame.

    Perhaps we should not be surprised at such relics, given our culture's continued use of Babylonian base 60 to measure time.

  29. peter said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    David Scrimshaw said (July 28, 2009 @ 2:14 pm)

    "What about fake Rolexes and knock-off designer clothing?"

    Where this gets interesting is when, as a result of global outsourcing, the fake watches and shoes are made in the very same Asian factories, by the very same people using the very same materials, as the "genuine" items are made. The only difference is that the profits accrue not to the company owning the label being forged. But even this is not necessarily always true, as a result of clever market segmentation by the western companies themselves encouraging some fake products to keep their brand alive, or as a result of the purchase of western brands by the Asian factories doing the outsourced production for them.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    In the customary laws of war (embodied to some extent in the various Geneva Conventions etc.), there is a distinction between a "ruse de guerre," which is an ok type of deception, and "perfidy" which is the very much not ok type of deception that is a war crime. Many of these (on both sides of the line) are non-verbal, i.e. using false uniforms, flags, or symbols to conceal your true identity. This doesn't necessarily mean that permissible ruses de guerre aren't "lying," of course, since the laws of war are a specialized context that also distinguish between ok and not-ok types of intentional homicide in a fashion which you would not want to carry over by analogy to civilian society.

    There is often a tension in these discussions between the position that lying is sometimes justified and the position that lying per se is never justified, with the latter approach tending to produce a very complicated definition of lying which conveniently excludes all the sorts of intentional deception we do think are sometimes justified.

  31. sollersuk said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    One of my dogs certainly could lie non-linguistically.

    His son had a bone that he wanted. With absolutely no outside stimulus, he jumped up on the window seat and started barking.

    His son jumped up to join in. At which point he jumped down and grabbed the bone.

  32. Vireya said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    An irrelevant observation; to me a laptop is not lying unless it is closed. If it is open, it is sitting.

  33. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    On the porch of the house we bought in 2002 there are two signs, both of which make false assertions: "These premises are monitored by a hidden video system" and "BE AWARE If you don't call the police my neighbour will".

    We didn't put the signs up. They were there when we moved in. But we haven't removed them. Does that make us liars?

  34. Simon Cauchi said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    Oops. I meant to write: "BE AWARE If I don't call the police my neighbour will".

  35. dr pepper said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    This makes me think of the concept of equivocation, which was the art of not giving up vital information to interrogators without actually making false statements. This was considered imprtant, even when the interrogation was under torture, because to lie, even to protect others, was a deadly sin.

  36. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    Further to the situation of signs giving arguably false directions: Not far from here is the small Maryland town of Detour, settled about 1780. Its most direct connection to the greater world is a bridge over Double Pipe Creek. When this bridge needed repair, the state highway commission closed Detour Road and put up a sign in New Midway, about five miles away, to the effect that "Detour Road Closed, use Route 194." The 194 connection to Detour (the town) is by no means obvious and soon the sign was enlarged to include fuller directions. Unexpected repairs to another bridge caused a sub-detour to Detour via 194 and the sign then grew to two paragraphs of directions. Many travelers interpreted the sign to mean that route 194 was closed and that the way to go was to follow Detour Road, which was the road that was actually closed (and which, when open, led to nowhere but Detour).

    Several small businesses took it upon themselves to put up their own signs improving on the state's directions and before long the whole northern end of Frederick county was close to paralysis. The problem was solved when the state replaced the one big sign with a number of small signs placed at intervals and reading "Detour to Detour: Follow Signs."

    Moral: Never try to tell the truth all at once. Let people have it in manageable doses.

  37. цarьchitect said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    The issue of lying and deception comes up a lot in theories of architecture. Not so much since the 1980s, but beginning with Vitruvius and then occasionally until the 1700s, when it became an ongoing argument, the issue of honesty in building structure or ornament has been a sticky and ill-defined issue. The notion that one kind of column is more true to the structural form, or that a frieze communicates one thing instead of another revolve around the notion that form imparts a meaning about the building, its uses, and about the builders' values. If the architect is doing some lavish decorating, or a formal manipulation of lines on a page can the building even be put in the context of a statement about the building itself?

    This paper doesn't help the debate much, however, since it's impossible to set the bounds of what expectations of honesty one has from a pile of stones. A layman might not know that the Louvre Colonnade can't stand up the way an architrave ought to or that the I-beams on the Seagram Building are just a skin, but an architect might. They're both just stories that are being told.

  38. Joe Fineman said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    What if you knock on my door and say "Joe, are you there?", and I, not wishing to deal with you, do not answer "No" (which would be counterproductive), but say nothing. By so behaving, I mean you to infer a falsehood. Does that count as a lie, as if I had put a note on my door saying "I am out — back at 6"? That seems to me a borderline case, but I would say no.

    Likewise, it can happen that I make a true statement from which I can pretty well count on you to infer a falsehood, thru failure to imagine some special case of my statement, or thru ignorance of some other qualifying fact. Morally, that is surely equivalent to lying, but strictly it is not lying.

    Some of the preceding comments allude to another class of deceptions, important in law, that overlaps lying but neither includes nor is included in it — namely, fraud. In a famous leading case, someone bought a house and discovered that it was infested with termites & required expensive repairs. During the negotiations for the sale, termites were not mentioned by either party. However, the buyer sued, having discovered, and being able to prove in court, that the seller had known about the termites and had hired a carpenter and a painter to make just such repairs as would suffice to conceal their presence from casual inspection. The court found that the buyer had been defrauded. I think I would likewise have no difficulty calling the seller a fraud, and some other things, without bothering to call him a liar. However, the book in which I read about this (_Contract as Promise_, by Charles Fried) gives a nicely graded series of bargains with asymmetric information, which shows how hard it can be to draw the line.

  39. Some Guy said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    Semiotically, a sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie.

    So to Umberto Eco, they're all lies.

    As I undertand it semiotics is not necessarily in the same sort of authoritative zone as linguistics, so that as you will. But the underlying principle I believe to be sound: if you can use it to communicate, you can use it to lie.

  40. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    "J Phil is one of the last institutions struggling to keep Roman numerals alive"
    They and Hollywood. Movies still typically use Roman numerals to declare the year of copyright in the final frame.

    How about the Super Bowl?
    What I find strange about the post and the discussion is the pervasive use of linguistic as though it were a synonym of verbal. I don't see any of the accepted areas of linguistics — semantics, syntax, phonology, dialectology etc. — brought into play, only the question of whether lying requires words. It seems an odd usage in a blog by and for linguists.

  41. Karl Kuntzelman said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 12:44 am

    I'm not sure how reasonable it is to attempt a clear distinction here; the entire concept is pretty closely tied to widely varying individual ideas about morality. If we got to tell people how to use the language it would be sensible to go with Fallis' definition of a lie and call anything non-linguistic a more general sort of deception (although I'd agree with the other commenters who call both of your examples essentially linguistic), but even without getting into legal definitions of falsehood I've certainly run into the concept of a lie by omission frequently enough to give me pause. A quick google search for the phrase turns up far fewer results than I would have expected, however, so maybe common usage disagrees with my personal experience.

  42. Paul Power said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:51 am

    The first Ikea the Republic of Ireland opened last week. Passing by I noticed there were a lot of small pennants on show at the petrol/gas station near its entrance. By complete coincidence the colours on the pennants, which are the colours of the franchise, are very similar to the blue and yellow of the Ikea.

    I think they'd like the passing motorists to infer a close onship between Ikea and the station, even though none exists.

  43. Paul Power said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:58 am

    That last line should be "I think they'd like the passing motorists to infer a close relationship between Ikea and the station, even though none exists."


  44. Troy S. said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    @Simon Cuachy: Signs advertising an alarm system are a cheap and actually pretty effective alternative to a real alarm, since it does serve as a deterrent. I did once see a Jeep with a bumper sticker that read: "This car protected by anti-theft bumper sticker." Perhaps more truthful and less effective than your signs, it did put a smile on my face.

  45. Philip (flip) Kromer said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 6:21 am

    The "Five Star" is a "Self-Falsifying Statement". If it were true, it wouldn't need saying, and so its assertion demonstrates its falsehood. Another example is the "Physics is PHUN!" poster in my building. There are many reasons to do physics, but 'fun' isn't at their core. You don't see 'Sex is Fun!' or 'Physics enables insight into complex systems!' posters: those statements are obvious on their face and don't warrant the printing cost. There's a gas station near my house called "Major Brand Gas". Which it isn't, and isn't.

    Products that are five-star don't say so in their name. This would promise an outcome and not a process, an approach incommensurate with the principles that lead to preeminance. (Compare: "The French Laundry", "Roc-A-Fella", "Apple". Each makes a respectively demonstrable claim: "We do things

    So I think brand names on towels *do* assert; the truth value of that assertion is independently on hand; and so by asserting the statement the author shows it to be false.

  46. D.O. said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 6:23 am

    @Coby Lubliner: Prof. Pullum filed it under "Semantics, Speech-acts" :)

    If we define lie as an attempt of deceit by a speech-act than there is nothing to talk about. It is just a definition.

    This passage

    …in a situation where you believe P to be false and you believe you are in a situation where the usual norm of not stating falsehoods is in effect

    reminded me about Archie Goodwin in one of the Stout novels wondering if a lie that he might be given by a very trustworthy-looking woman was not actually a lie because he had no right to ask her the question in the first place.

  47. Cecily said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    David Scrimshaw said (July 28, 2009 @ 2:14 pm) "What about fake Rolexes and knock-off designer clothing?"

    peter said (July 28, 2009 @ 5:40 pm) "the fake watches and shoes are made in the very same Asian factories, by the very same people using the very same materials, as the "genuine" items are made."

    Don't forget the third category, the "genuine copy watch" that one is often pestered to buy in Chinese cities and probably elsewhere.

  48. Gordon Campbell said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    On a related matter: can irony be non-verbal (e.g. wearing hideous retro polyester shirts & nerdish cardigans as a marker of coolness)?

  49. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    Many great (and not-so-great) movies are based on non-linguistic lies, aren't they? Isn't that what espionage is all about? Isn't that the twist that we never see coming — the "good guy" who has apparently been chasing the bad guy through the whole movie, but who is, in fact, the "bad guy" himself?

    I think if you watch Ocean's Eleven again, you'll see plenty of examples of non-linguistic, non-verbal lying. (And yes, they're movies — fictions — but they could just as easily happen in real life.)

  50. Lars said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    On a closely related topic, this just came up on the Straight Dope web page: it appears that Grape Nuts Cereal contains neither grapes nor nuts:

    This led the person posing the question (the question being: how can they get away with this?) to ask:
    "Can I market my "100% Lean Beef brand desiccated corn husks" without getting in trouble with the consumer protection people…?"

    Which I thought was truly inspired.

  51. Ryan Daley said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    The printer example "false" advertising, meant to mislead, but certainly not a lie.

  52. eye5600 said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    One of my favorites is Rich Chocolate Ovaltine. "Rich Chocolate" is not a description, it is the name. In TV advertising, they get to call "rich" and "chocolate" whether it is or not because they are only calling it by its name.

    If we had 40 different words for "lie", there would be one for saying something that is technically correct interpreted one way, but which is expected to be interpreted in a different, incorrect way by the listener.

  53. Karl Weber said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    Konrad Lorenz's book about animals, KING SOLOMON'S RING, contains a chapter titled something like "Animals Who Lie." It tells several anecdotes about deceptive behavior by animals. One is the story of an old, near-sighted dog who barked when his owner returned home, thinking the owner was actually a stranger. When the owner got near enough for the dog to recognize his mistake, the dog tried to cover it up by barking in the direction of the house across the street, as if that had been the target of his barking all along.

  54. Andrew said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Coby Lubliner: surely 'linguistic' means 'to do with language', not 'to do with linguistics'. I would have thought that the concept of the linguistic was prior to that of linguistics as a science.

  55. Gav said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    Bar 95 of Scriabin's 9th piano sonata includes the comment (or possibly instruction) "perfide". I've often wondered how to play it, quite apart from getting the right notes in the right order.

    Generally successful ensemble playing requires intense non-verbal signalling and it can be a good exercise with students to sell them the occasional dummy (to borrow a phrase from rugby football) to bring home the need for due care.

  56. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Simpsons writer George Meyer was quoted in a New Yorker article as being very amused by Country Crock margarine, since its name contained two "lies" (it's not from the country; there is no crock) in just two words.

  57. Mary Kuhner said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    One of my chimpanzee behavior textbooks tells the story of an experiment in which there is a double-sided locked cabinet, only one side of which can be unlocked at a time. One side contains bananas, the other contains stinky garbage. The chimpanzee subject, having seen the cabinet prepared, knows which is which, but is locked up and can't reach them. The human subject has a key and has access to the cabinet, but doesn't know which side to open. The chimp has to signal to the human which side to open; they will then split the proceeds. Chimps learn to do this quite readily.

    –Except for one chimp, who learned to do it with random trainers, but when paired with a trainer she particularly disliked would always induce him to open up the garbage side.

    I think she is lying, myself, unless lying has to be verbal. I feel no doubt that she is engaged in intentional deception.

    In the same book is a photo of a low-ranked male who has been caught out while propositioning a female. He is sitting in a tree, looking down at the higher-ranked male, and hiding his erection with both hands.

    I'm not as sure I'd say he's lying, but it sure looks like intentional deception.

  58. Nanani said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    How about ignoring a ringing phone, assuming you know who is calling via call display?

    The caller can be left to assume whatever (you were busy, your phone was switched off, etc) and you have not made any linguistic act.

  59. misterfricative said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    Re: 'Country Crock' — fwiw I'd always thought the name was pretty honest, since after all, the self-description is 100% total crock.

  60. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    And finally, do not forget that Alfred Korzybski instructs us that the map is not the territory.

  61. Jim Rust said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 3:28 am

    eye5600 said "If we had 40 different words for "lie", there would be one for saying something that is technically correct interpreted one way, but which is expected to be interpreted in a different, incorrect way by the listener."

    From my high school English teacher, I learned that this is called "telling the witch's truth", a reference to Macbeth.

  62. Niels Iversen said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    You can choose other definitions if you want, but as I see it Sean Connery and his collegues ARE lying, when they claim to be James Bond. However there is something called fiction, where you take a nice little bundle of lies and accept that people are lying because you like to play the game of "what now if …". Within a fictive world built upon lies you can make small games like "If Sean Connery was James Bond then it wouldn't be a lie if he claimed to be James Bond". But this is just a game, and the reality is that somebody paid Sean Connery to lie, and the public loved it.

  63. Mark Liberman said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    And then there's Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand." He might have said, "This towel is a lie that makes us realize the truth", right? Of course, he said it in French.

  64. Jason F. Siegel said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned Coleman & Kay (1981), where they take a prototype semantic approach to the world "lie." In essence (from what I can recall–those who want to check the facts more closely can visit, the prototype was close to Fallis's view, and from there on out, it got less clear as to what it means to "lie." I have not read Fallis's article, but I would hope that he cites this article.

  65. Stephen Jones said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    You haven't given us the exact words of the sign, but I would say the Office Depot sign is definitely lying. We assume there is a connection between the information about the wireless network and the instruction to print (relevancy maxim).

  66. Stephen Jones said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    Of course, if the person who wrote the sign presumed the wireless network would be working but the guy who set it up with the USB cable didn't realize he was supposed to configure it wirelessly, then the sign wouldn't be lying.

    But what about the case where the guy who set up the USB cable did so because it was too complicated to set up the wireless connection and thus was aware the sign was misleading, but still left it there? Or the case where wireless used to work but then stopped, so they connected by USB. The sign would have been telling the truth to start with but lying afterwards.

    The sign of course might be a lie but it isn't lying; lying requires an intention, but that doesn't have to be the intention of the person that wrote the sign, but for example could be the intention of the person that displayed the sign.

    Which is how a false license plate can be a vehicle for a lie. The person that put on the false license plate is deliberately trying to deceive. You state that lies are linguistic but surely they are communicative, which is a different matter. Otherwise we get to the situation where if you ask "Is John in?" and I reply, "No", whilst fully aware he is, then I am lying, but if I just shake my head I am not, which is palpably absurd.

  67. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    the discussion reminds me of what i've been thinking of as the "asterisk-based society", wherein we seem to have accepted that ads can lie as much as they want, so long as an asterisk is appended to their claims to mark them as lies. ("free" is by far the most common of these lies; "best" is probably the runner-up.) the corresponding "terms and conditions apply" doesn't even have to appear anywhere on the ad anymore.

  68. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    @цarьchitect: i have a soft spot for new york's cathedral of st john the divine (known fondly to Columbia students as "st john the unfinished"), due to its architectural honesty. afaik, its arches, buttresses, and ceiling ribs exist entirely to prevent it from collapsing into a pile of rubble: it is an honest gothic stone cathedral, unlike pretty much every other "cathedral-style" church in america, or at least new york–riverside (diagonally across the Columbia campus) is a lump of cathedral-shaped concrete, held up by rebar. (i'm not sure whether the gothic elements of st pat's (midtown) are structural, but if they are, the architects certainly did an amazingly good job of making real stone look like concrete. speaking of which, how does one classify meta-lies–attempts to convince someone, or lead or allow someone to believe, that one is lying when one is, in fact, telling the truth?)

  69. Graeme said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    "Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime" (Lennon, White Album)

    Adultery leads many to cuckold their spouses with non-linguistic lies, unless by 'linguistic utterance' or 'speech act' we include reassuring caresses or glances. The beauty of this is that the lie infects the giver as much as the receiver.

  70. Graeme said,

    August 8, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    (My belated point, above, is that lying is quintessentially about intention and awareness of breaching expectations whilst retaining them. The method is irrelevant. In certain circumstances, which the lawyers dub 'uberrimae fides', or utmost good faith, the lie exists in the silence or failure to declare, because the relationship inheres only in mutual assumptions of continuing adherence to certain pledges or truths. In this way, a breach of promise can simultaneously be a lie. For what it is worth, I cannot see the point of invoking exacting definitions to split deception from lying).

RSS feed for comments on this post