Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 02:07:44
25 September 2018


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Sunday, July 01, 2018

Those Lyin' Eyes

by Michele Berdy

These days, if you read Russian periodicals in order to improve your language skills, you are getting lots of practice in ways to lie. Or not lie. Or insist you are not lying when you really are. If you need help determining how bad a lie is, here’s a short primer in The Art of Not Telling the Truth.

First of all, low on the ladder of lies is “that’s not what I meant.” This is an important category for the head of an organization, be it a company or a country, or the press secretary of said head. Sometimes the boss lets something slip out. When that happens, his minions tell the press: “Он просто оговорился. Когда говорил «крах», он имел в виду другую фирму / страну.” (“He misspoke. When he said “collapse” he was talking about another firm / country.”)

If that doesn’t quite work, the press secretary might say: “Он не точно выразился.” (“He was a bit unclear.”) Or change the focus to “it’s your fault”: “Вы ослышались.” (“You misheard.”)

The next category up the falsehood ladder is “it was just a little untrue.”  “Ну, он говорил не совсем правду.” (“Well, he didn’t exactly tell the truth.”) Or it was a lie, but for good reason: “Когда он обещал повышение в зарплате всем, это была начальническая ложь во спасение.” (“When he promised a raise for everyone, it was the management’s white lie.”)

A next category up is “dissembling.” In Russian it is expressed with the verb лукавить, which is derived from a word used to describe a winding river or serpentine road. So лукавитьis to twist a lie so cleverly that it resembles the truth. “Сегодня начальник категорически отрицает этот факт. Но, я думаю, он лукавит.” (“Today the boss is categorically denying that fact. I think he’s dissembling.”)

When none of that works, climb up the ladder another step to: “Он неправду говорил.” (“He didn’t tell the truth.”) 

At the top of the ladder are Russians’ two verbs for lying: вратьand лгать. I asked a diverse group of native Russian speakers to tell me how they differ. First reaction: the words had different connotations in the past but now they are synonyms. Second reaction from everyone: it’s just a question of speech level: лгатьis literary, formal; вратьis informal, colloquial. 

Then there was a pause as the group began to run through examples in their heads. And then the subtle distinctions came out.  

Лгать is the bad verb. It means to lie outright, knowingly, and intentionally. Лгать — это преднамеренно искажать информацию (To lie is to intentionally distort the truth.) Most thought that there was always malice involved in ложь (a lie): Лгут, чтобы ввести другого в заблуждение (People lie to deceive someone.) And the лгун(liar) knows he’s lying.

Врать is more colloquial and has the sense of fantasizing, spinning a tale. When a kid spins a long story about how it wasn’t his fault he fell into a puddle, his mother says: “Саша, не ври!” (“Sasha, don’t make up stories!”). If ложьhas a goal, враньё(blarney) might not.Врать can be for the fun of it. 

Лгатьis always negative; врать may be positive — if the stories are good. 

So when an old school chum sees you after 30 years and tells you how you haven’t changed, you don’t say “Лжёшь!” (“Liar!”) You say, smiling: “Врёшь ты…” (“Now that’s just not true…”) Because who cares if it’s make believe? 

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If you need help determining how bad a lie is, here’s a short primer in The Art of Not Telling the Truth.

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