Firstly, I should apologise to anyone who has opened this email expecting an essay on philosophy. I admit that last week’s trailer, ‘Next week: How an accident with a home-made go-kart taught me philosophy’, may have given the impression that this week’s article would be about how an accident with a home-made go-kart taught me philosophy. What I should have written was: ‘Next week: How I fibbed about this week’s article being about how an accident with a home-made go-kart taught me philosophy.’
Or should it? It all depends on your definition of reality. And go-kart.
I have had accidents with home-made go-karts but the only thing they’ve taught me about philosophy was not to use a copy of Existentialism is a Humanism as a chock when parked on a steep incline eating your sandwiches. Way too thin. When the ambulance crew first got to me they thought I’d lost half my face, before realising the salami had flown out of my baguette in the impact and landed on my left cheek. The paramedic peeled it off, helped me to my feet and handed me a copy of Being and Nothingness. At least I think he was a paramedic. Come to think of it, he may have been the mobile librarian.
So what’s the difference between a fib and a lie? Well, about 500 years if you want to go back to its origins. The verb ‘to lie’ dates from the 12th century – the same century, unhelpfully, as the other verb ‘to lie’. Even more unhelpfully, the two verbs have almost identical origins in Old English – ligan and licgan respectively – but there is no common meaning.
Imagine how confusing that must have been for people in the 12th century. Two new words, spelt and pronounced exactly the same way, with two completely different definitions. An innocent request, such as, “Will you lie with me?” would never get a straight answer. No wonder the country descended into civil war.
The word fib was first recorded in the early 1600s (just before the country descended into civil war again) but its origin is unknown. It has been suggested by respected etymologists that it may be derived from ‘fibble-fable’, which apparently meant ‘nonsense’. Or it may have evolved from ‘fibby-wibby’, or ‘fibbimus-fobbimus’ or any other made-up words that someone might have said once in 1593?
Maybe it just came into the world as ‘fib’, first uttered by someone misreading the word ‘lie’ in one of those flowery texts that were popular at the time. Let’s face it, reading wasn’t a strong point among the populace of Jacobean England and if you’ve ever tried to decipher 17th century handwriting, you’ll be aware how difficult it is. A misplaced curlicue on the L, an overly flamboyant flourish on the E and ‘lie’ very quickly starts to look like ‘fib’.
Or maybe the vicar walked in just as someone was exclaiming, “That’s a f****** lie, you l*****, d*** b****!” and they had to catch themselves. “That’s a f-ff-iiiiii-b.” We’ve all done it.
This would explain why fib assumed a gentler definition to lie – a more innocent falsehood, without malice or the harmful consequences of a lie. Fibs are much more palatable than lies but the literary world has always gained more mileage with the harder ‘lie’. The Eagles, for example, probably wouldn’t have had the same success with ‘Fibbin’ Eyes’. Or Eminem and Rihanna with ‘Love the Way You Fib’. Or The Who with ‘La La La La La La Fibs’.
And then there’s Wilfred Owen’s famous war poem, which would surely have lost its punch had he concluded with the lines:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old fib; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Not quite the same, is it?
Next week: Why trailers like this can be misleading.