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!”