Thursday, September 19, 2013

Language of Confusion: Liar, Liar

Because I wanted to etymologize the word every writer has to look up to use properly, lay, and that can’t be done without looking at lie in all its forms.

Lie as in not true first appeared as a verb in the late twelfth century, while the noun didn’t show up until the end of the seventeenth century. It comes from the Old English legan/ligan and its earlier incarnation leogan, all of which had the same basic meaning we know it as. Further back in Proto Germanic, the word is leugan (the g is still present in other Germanic languages, like Dutch and of course German) and even further back, we have the Proto Indo European leugh, to tell a lie. And I promise, I’m telling the truth. : )

And we all know the word liar, which is what’s known as an agent noun, a word for a person who does something (writer from write, for example). It came into existence in the early thirteenth century, from the Old English leogere, also liar. It doesn’t seem to have a version in Proto Germanic. Instead it seems to have evolved from the West Saxon (southern England, one of the most popular dialects before the Norman invasion in 1066) leogan and the Anglian (northern England, consisting of all the dialects of Mercia and Northumbria) legan, words meaning to lie. The word seems to have appeared because people wanted something to call people who tell untruths. I guess the middle ages were as long as they could go without it.

Then we have the other kind of lie, the one that gives us all the trouble with its tenses. It showed up in the early twelfth century from the Old English licgan, meaning it was similar to the word for lie even then. It evolved from Proto Germanic as well, coming from legjanan, to lie or lay. Lay, as in lay something down, has a very similar etymology. It comes from the Old English lecgan, with an e, which evolved from the Proto Germanic lagjanan, with an a. So apparently the confusion existed even a thousand years ago.

No one ever said languages evolve in a way that makes sense. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been saying the opposite ever since I started these things.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language


  1. I hate lay and lie. It's one of those I actually have to look up a lot even though I know how they work. Sometimes, I still get them wrong.

  2. Lay and lie are easy to confuse. I've done it.

  3. I still have to stop and think about these two. Ug. You think after THAT many years, someone would have come up with a solution.

  4. Hey, UT Austin linguistics! I have a minor from that department. :)

  5. I hate the lay-lie conundrum. I go out of my way to avoid using those words in writing.

  6. Hah! I reminded of the conversations I have with my hubby--the way his mind works and how he reaches various thought processes.

    Evolution is a funny thing, eh?

  7. Like William: avoid the problem by avoiding those blasted words! :-)

  8. I avoid those words whenever possible.

    It's interesting how some things came to us from Saxon. I remember seeing something about two languages existing side by side, and English ending up with all the words, giving us oh so many synonyms (sick and ill, for example).


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