Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Lie!

Posted by Neal on September 11, 2009

While watching President Obama’s address to Congress two nights ago, I heard someone off screen interrupt when Obama said the healthcare plan he envisioned would not provide health insurance to illegal aliens immigrants. I couldn’t hear everything the unseen speaker said; all I heard was, “Lie!” For all I knew, that might have been the entire utterance, in which case it could mean several things. One possibility was that the speaker was commanding the president to knowingly state falsehoods. Not very likely. Or he could have been telling Obama to pronate or supinate himself on the House floor, but that’s even less likely, since the more idiomatic way of saying that would be “Lie down.” So going back to the realm of false statements, “Lie!” could also have been just a noun, thrown out as a tag for the hearers to tie to Obama’s claim. That, I decided, was the most likely interpretation if all the speaker had said was “Lie!”, and it had probably been the end of a longer statement like “That’s a lie!”

The next day, of course, I learned that the speaker was a representative from South Carolina, who offered an actual apology (not a non-apology) for this breach of respect, only to say later that he’d done it because his party leadership made him, and is now winning big political points from his constituency and others.

I also learned that the full utterance was not “Lie!”, or even “That’s a lie!”, but in fact, “You lie!” So lie was a verb after all. In between wondering why exactly people think the statement that Obama’s hoped-for healthcare system won’t cover illegal aliens is a lie, I’ve wondered why this representative chose this particular wording.

You lie is in the simple present tense, which in modern English is used to represent habitual action. (At least, it does for verbs that denote actions, such as hurl, disrupt, and lie. For verbs that denote states, like know or seem, the simple present tense is the normal choice.) For action that’s happening at the time of the utterance, what you want is the present progressive tense. So instead of “You lie!”, why didn’t this representative yell out “You’re lying!” to the president?

It’s true that You lie is shorter than You’re lying by one syllable, but I’d hesitate to conclude that’s a strong enough reason. It also seems to me that You lie somehow carries more vehemence, maybe because it sounds like archaic language, from a time when the progressive tenses weren’t as developed, language that’s only pulled out now for special and serious occasions. Not too archaic — Thou liest! would just sound like a joke — but just archaic enough. Or maybe You lie is stronger because even though it’s not saying that you’re lying right now, it carries that implication — in addition to the actual assertion that you habitually lie. “You lie a lot,” the utterer claims, leaving it to the hearer to fill in the rest: “And you’re lying right now!”

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12 Responses to “You Lie!”

  1. kip said

    Most examples I can think of (off top of my head) using the simple present tense use it in an ironic sense. “Surely you jest.” “I shit you not.” (Or the PG version “I kid you not.”) Maybe “you don’t say.” This would support your “slightly archaic” hypothesis.

  2. Ran said

    Perhaps relevantly, Google estimates there to be more than twice as many hits for “no wait I lie” (39.3k) as for “no wait I’m lying” (18.1k).

  3. viola said

    Recently, Gregg (youngest son) was making up spelling sentences for homework. One of the sentences was, “I give you (such and such).” I asked him if that sounded right. He said he wasn’t sure. We were a little pressed for time, and at that point I couldn’t think of how to explain to him how open-ended and archaic his sentence sounded. Instead I said, how about if you put the word “will” after “I”…and left it at that. Funny, because the first thing that popped into my mind when Gregg wrote that was the words, “I bequeath thee…” which are extremely archaic. So this particular entry will be shared with Holt & Gregg and we’ll have a good giggle. This will be followed by a weekend of haughty pointing and exuberant thee’s and thou’s and excessive use of est’s and eth’s at the end of words that (for the most part) should not include such suffixes.

  4. viola said

    So if hurl morphs into a noun, “You hurl!” might have several possibilities of interpretation indeed.

  5. Yongho Kim said

    Another point not to be missed is that the representative was trying to yell, and “You are lying” would end up in a closed mouth, effectively muting his utterance in a large hall. “Lie” is not exactly an “a” sound, but at least it’s an open mouth.

    하지만 “Shut up!” 이 출동하면 어떨까? which is a self-defeating utterance, ending in a sudden shutting up of the utterer themselves.

  6. Great summary of all the nuances of this choice of words. I agree that it implies “you are someone who lies” along with “you’re lying right now.” I also feel the archaic undertone. It does indeed feel like a modern day rendering of “thou liest!” I can almost picture the crowd gathered around the stake, getting ready to make the fire.

  7. Glen said

    I think “You lie!” might be a famous movie quote that has worked its way into the vernacular. I can’t remember the movie, but I keep hearing it in my head, and the person speaking it has an accent. According to this site, Chekov said “You lie” in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But somehow a male voice doesn’t sound right to me; I keep hearing a woman’s voice say the words.

  8. viola said

    @Glen
    Was it a ranting Meg Ryan on You’ve Got Mail?

  9. anon said

    To me, it sounded like it was shortened from “You lie, boy!”

  10. […] Chekov’s declaration in the Star Trek Movie. It was also made by a commenter on a Sept. 11 post about the linguistic roots of “You […]

  11. John Cowan said

    Based on the WaPo article you linked, it still sounds like a non-apology to me. An apology has to contain confession (“I did wrong”), contrition (“I’m sorry I did wrong”), and promise of amendment (“I won’t do it again”), at least by implication. Here Wilson says that he confesses, but no sign of contrition, still less any promises about future behavior.

    • Neal said

      The first apology, which I didn’t link to, sounded like an apology should, IIRC. The WaPo article was where he effectively negated it with a subsequent non-apology.

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