By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Lying’ is a very useful word. But it’s also a strong accusation, and one that, when made, we want to hit the mark and have maximum impact. Overusing such a word can dull its edge and rob it of some of its power, so it’s sometimes useful to reach for some alternative words that mean the same as ‘lying’.
Below, we introduce and explain some of the best synonyms for lying.
If someone is lying, then it stands to reason they are being UNTRUTHFUL – and this word seems like a good place to begin our list of lying synonyms.
This word is fairly self-explanatory, although it’s worth mentioning, as a point of interest, that untruthful originally meant ‘not believing’ or ‘infidel’ rather than ‘lying’. Although this sense is now obsolete, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records it from the fifteenth century, whereas untruthful only came to mean lying in the mid-nineteenth century – relatively recently, in the grand scheme of things.
Untruthful is a useful synonym because lying is such a blunt and direct accusation; accusing someone of being untruthful suggests they have departed from the truth but leaves open the possibility (albeit a slim one) that they are not actively seeking to deceive (see below for more on this).
The same is true of another word which, rather than taking the direct approach of lying, instead negates a positive, truth-telling term to soften the blow. So calling someone out for being DISHONEST, whilst essentially the same as calling them a liar, cushions the blow a little.
There are other, stronger d-words available, however, which are altogether more direct when holding someone to account for lying. These include the foursome of DECEITFUL, DECEIVING, DECEPTIVE, and DUPLICITOUS.
The first three of these clearly all share a root: the OED tells us that the Latin verb dēcipĕre, which spawned these words, meant ‘to catch in a trap, to entrap, ensnare’. The idea is that you would catch your prey by guile or fraud – or, if you will, by deceit.
As for duplicitous, that’s from the Latin duplex, which literally means ‘to fold in two’. The idea is that someone accused of duplicity is engaged in double-dealing, or (more broadly) of saying one thing publicly and then secretly doing something else.
Such a notion also informed the phrase TWO-FACED, which is a figurative term for someone who is deceitful or insincere. This phrase has been in use since the early seventeenth century, when it appeared in the play The Queen of Corinth written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: ‘Who can trust / The gentle lookes and words of two-fac’d man?’
As if the four synonyms mentioned above aren’t enough d-words for anyone, there are two more which can be grouped together: DISSEMBLING and DISSIMULATING.
Although dissembling sounds as though it should mean ‘disassembling’ or ‘taking apart’, it actually refers to altering the appearance or semblance of oneself in order to deceive: in other words, to disguise oneself. The OED suggests that this formation may have been influenced by resemble.
As for dissimulating, this also means concealing or disguising something, and so is a near-synonym for lying. The word is etymologically related to dissimilar, because you are making yourself appear differently from how you really are.
Meanwhile, people who tell a little white lie might be charged with FIBBING: a term which makes the lying sound less serious and more petty than egregious.
MENDACIOUS is from the Latin mendum, meaning ‘blemish’ or ‘error’, and the word has been in use in English since the early seventeenth century. It’s a handy synonym for lying because it enables the author or speaker to accuse someone of downright lying but by using a word whose meaning may be uncertain to them. Telling somebody, ‘your mendacity knows no bounds!’ may well elicit the response: ‘Why, thank you very much!’ because they mistake it for a compliment. And that can serve its purpose …
If you’re lying, you’re not being true, so we might say you’re being FALSE. This word has been used to describe people of various kinds over the centuries, including unfaithful lovers (who are lying in a very particular sense, of course).
A word more commonly used of a thing which is lying, as opposed to a person, is MISLEADING, as in a misleading advertisement or a misleading message. The word means exactly what its component parts imply: that the message is leading someone in the wrong direction (i.e., an untruthful one). MISREPRESENTATIVE and MISREPRESENTING are two other mis- terms which are of relevance here.
Although not as close a match as some of the other synonyms on this list, it’s worth giving an honourable mention to PERFIDIOUS, a word which means ‘faithless’ or ‘treacherous’, and thus conveys a specific idea of lying (involving breaking trust and being a traitor).
ECONOMICAL WITH THE TRUTH has become popular, especially as a tongue-in-cheek defence of lying. However, it began not as a comic phrase for lying but as a euphemism. Many people think it originated in England in 1986 at the famous Spycatcher trial, when it was memorably used by Robert Armstrong, a British civil servant.
However, the exact phrase economical with the truth has been found as early as 1932, when it appeared in the British author H. C. Bailey’s detective novel Case for Mr Fortune: ‘Oh, yes. I thought he was being very economical with the truth.’
And the OED records the near-identical phrase economical of truth as early as 1848, when the Watertown Chronicle in the US used it: ‘If Rumor … has not been unusually economical of truth, the books of the Treasury have long shown that there is “something rotten” nearer home than “Denmark”.’
But even earlier than this, in 1795, the noted author and political Edmund Burke used the phrase in one of his Letters on a Regicide Peace: ‘Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an œconomy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.’
Let’s conclude our pick of the best lying synonyms not with a synonym per se, but a useful word to describe someone who is a compulsive liar. MYTHOMANE denotes someone who is addicted to telling lies, because ‘myths’ are fictions and therefore, in a sense, grand lies.
The two commonest antonyms for ‘lying’ are TRUTHFUL and HONEST. However, being FRANK or DIRECT in one’s messaging or communication also stands at the other end of the spectrum from lying, since a liar does not wish to be frank and often uses indirect and misleading language to deceive.