Without a doubt, one of the things that makes an awesome word awesome is that it applies to something people do all the time. For example, we all know what it’s like to forget something—or, more accurately, to go through the process of forgetting. Knowledge which you gained that you’ll need on a forthcoming exam tends to start slipping away as soon as you cram it in there. This process is one we can all relate to, but how many know that it’s called “oblivescence”? It happens to every single one of us, but so few of us know that there’s a word for it!
Similarly, we all know what it means to be purposefully misleading, bordering on lying. Just about everyone has had the argument in which they’re accused of lying and—because they told the truth but in a misleading way, not actually lying qua lying—they insist that they have not lied. Well, the word for what you did that wasn’t exactly lying but still fudged the truth in your favor is prevaricate (pre’VAR’ick’ate).
To prevaricate is to be misleading, to sort of, kinda, not really entirely tell the whole truth… In other words, to lie. Unlike outright lying, prevaricating is a bit more manipulative, and may involve answering a question that wasn’t asked or providing an answer that you know isn’t really what the asker was looking for.
Suppose that Monday night, you cheated on your significant other, and it is now Wednesday evening—two days later. Even though Monday you were out testing someone else’s bedsprings, Tuesday night—yesterday—you were at home. The following, then, would be an example of prevaricating:
“Mindy said you were over at Kelly’s house all night last night! Did you sleep with her?!”
“What?! Of course not! I didn’t go out at all last night!”
“I don’t believe a word of it! Why would Mindy lie about you being at her house all night?”
“I don’t know, but I didn’t even go out to the mailbox last night. Go look; there’s probably still mail there. I have no idea what Mindy’s talking about. You can ask the neighbors. I was here all night!”
Of course, what you’re not answering is the question that’s really being asked: whether you misbehaved, regardless of whether it was yesterday or the day before. By latching on to the fact that your disgruntled significant other asked what you were doing only “last night”, and then technically telling the truth about just that night, you have lied without lying per se; you have prevaricated.
Generally, humans learn to prevaricate by about the age of five. It begins with the child who throws a Frisbee in the living room and breaks a valuable vase. Long before dad comes home and asks, “Did you break the vase?”, the child has identified that he can answer that he did not break it (after all, it was the Frisbee that broke the vase!).
Prevarication goes beyond these simple lies, however. It can be used manipulatively in a positive sense, as well. It is possible to prevaricate without involving any falsehoods at all.
Suppose that two police officers are both running for the county sheriff’s seat in a political contest. The one officer announces that, even though he and the other have been in the police force for the same length of time, he’s made over a thousand more arrests. That sounds impressive… until you consider that the other officer didn’t work in the field; he was a forensic analyst in a crime lab. By failing to present all the facts, the first officer has prevaricated; he has told the truth—he really does have a lot more arrests than his opponent—but he’s done so in a way which makes the situation sound as though his opponent is just lazy or ineffectual. In fact, the opponent’s work in the crime lab may be more important to the role of a county sheriff who will spend more time looking at the big picture of county crime than actually out making arrests! Politicians (at least, those who last for very long) are usually very good prevaricators.
What’s really great about the word prevaricate, though, is that it is a word that, when used in the company of intelligent people and meaningful discourse, is a powerful weapon. To accuse someone of prevaricating is to imply all of the aforementioned nastiness. You’re accusing them not just of lying, but of doing so in a devilish, duplicitous manner. The claim of prevarication in the presence of people who know what the word means is much like calling a poker player’s bluff in a high-stakes card game. It’s more involved than just saying, “You’re lying.” It’s tantamount to saying, “Yes, everything you’ve said is, in fact, true, but you’re misrepresenting the truth anyway, and you bloody well know it!”
(On a closing note, the pronunciation of the word varies slightly. Some pronounce the “var” syllable as you would in “varnish”, while others pronounce it as in the word “variable”. Either one works quite well.)
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is Jet Fuel Review’s prose editor. He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works a few hours a week as a tutor in the Writing Center.