From Geoffrey Chaucer to Jeff Sessions, misspeaking is when you lie about lying

Taking the oath. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

When US attorney-general Jeff Sessions told his confirmation hearing he had not had any communication with any Russians during the presidential election campaign, only for it to turn out that he had twice met with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, he was apparently “misspeaking”. So that’s ok then.

But maybe not – while “misspeak” undoubtedly has the innocent connotation of “speaking incorrectly” or even “mispronouncing”, it is a sad reflection on contemporary life that whenever a politician uses a word, no matter how blameless the context might appear, people are less and less inclined to take the meaning of that word at face value.

There is no other word quite like “misspeak”. This is because to claim to have misspoken – as used by our political overlords – is essentially to tell a lie about a lie. So it not only relates to untruth, the phrase itself contains an untruth.

Chaucer, Wycliffe and Shakespeare all used the word. Even at first blush, we can see that it has a phylogenetic relationship – that is, it shares common roots – with other expressions prefixed with “mis-”, some of which have blameless connotations, such as “mistake”, “mislay” and “mishap”. Others, though, are less innocent – notably “mislead” and “misuse”.

The English seem to have borrowed the mis prefix from their Norman cousins at some time in the 14th century: so the Old French word mésparler meaning to traduce or calumniate may be a worthy progenitor of “misspeak”.

Fessing up

As George Orwell pointed out in his essay Politics and the English Language, politicians routinely misuse language. Orwell’s main point about political speech is that it is essentially stale: politicians mindlessly recycle expressions – and misspeak is a prime example. We have seen this word used in two ways, the Hillary Clinton way and the Ted Cruz way. Unexpectedly, both owe a debt to Bill Clinton.

Clinton ‘misspoke’ about her experience in Bosnia. EPA/Jeff Zelevansky

First, let us deal with the Hillary Clinton variety. Clinton famously asserted that she had misspoken when it was established that her aircraft, upon landing in Bosnia, had not been fired at, as she had previously stated. In her defence she claimed:

I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke it was just a misstatement.

However, it was pointed out that she had made her claim in a prepared speech. In other words, at some point in time, she and her speech writers had sat down and typed or written the words that she later “misspoke”.

Clearly, this is not “misspeaking” of the “speaking incorrectly” or “mispronouncing” variety. It was, in other words, a planned, premeditated industrial production of invented or distorted facts. When Clinton claimed to have “misspoken” she was simply dressing up a lie: not only had she lied, she was now lying about lying. She had invented facts and then attempted to attribute that invention to error.

The second variety is that espoused by Ted Cruz, a luminary from the other side of the political spectrum. Referring to the recent debacle surrounding US attorney‑general Jeff Sessions’ omission of certain facts relating to meetings with the Russian ambassador, Cruz said:

His answer was less than clear, he misspoke and did not answer as clearly as he should and that’s unfortunate.

Cruz went on to describe Sessions’ lexical misadventure as “an oversight”.

Ted Cruz was ready to help his friend Jeff Sessions out of a tight spot. EPA/Michael Reynolds

However, the claim that Sessions did not “answer as clearly as he should” cannot be substantiated because Sessions was quite clear in his Senate confirmation hearing: “I did not have communications with the Russians”. This unequivocal construction begins with the words “I did not have”, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s “I did not have” – in his case “sexual relations”. Notice that both “have communications with” and “have sexual relations with” are themselves less cognate forms of “speak to” (or similar expressions) and “have sex with” respectively.

Looked at together, the two denials are linguistically fascinating not only for their structural similarities, but also for their euphemising of “speak to” and “have sex with” as “have communications with” and “have sexual relations with” respectively, as the table below shows:

Misspeaking? Or telling a fib? John Olsson, Author provided

As we can see from the above, the provenance of Sessions’ denial owes its syntax entirely to Bill Clinton who – although it was not claimed on his behalf – clearly “misspoke”. It could thus be that Hillary Clinton’s “misspeech” is the indirect progeny of her husband’s misadventure, which – in turn – spawned Sessions’ misleading comment. What we take from this is that mendacity crosses party lines effortlessly.

Weasel words

Here is a simple test to determine the ethics behind “misspeak”: imagine you are a lawyer in court and you give the judge incorrect information. It can be guaranteed that if you later on tell the judge that you “misspoke”, there will be a raised judicial eyebrow. In court, a lawyer’s first duty is to the court – not only must a lawyer not mislead a court, they must not allow the court to be misled, directly or indirectly, knowingly or recklessly, by commission or omission.

To sum up, to claim misspeech when what actually occurred was a distortion of the truth, an invention of a fact, or the denial of a reality, is clearly to misuse the word “misspeak”. The person is not holding up their hand and admitting to having lied; they are still in denial. They are sugarcoating the fact that they did not speak the truth. They are using “misspeak” because “lying” is an ugly word and they do not wish to be associated with it.

So “misspeak” is wheeled in to rescue a reputation, but in doing so the person is lying yet again. As Orwell cautioned all those years ago: we must be on our guard not to allow ourselves to be anaesthetised by the deceptions of political rhetoric. Politicians lie because a lot of the time they are doing things we would not agree with. “Misspeak” suggests that some politicians have taken lying to a new level: they have learned to lie about lying. You might think of this as simply a phenomenon of the post-truth era. Nope – it’s just lying.