Early in the school year, I used to do vocabulary activities in my junior English classes. They required the use of hardcover dictionaries and most often teamwork. In each case the terms and their definitions were written into classroom journals which could be accessed during quizzes and exams. No need to write any of this down, I’d say, but if you find you need the information during a test, you can look it up in your own journals. Sometimes I did this twice.

The short version had four words: “sympathy,” “pity,” “empathy,” and “compassion,” and illustrates the classic case of dictionary definitions that reference one another. “Pity” is sympathetic, and “sympathy” expresses pity. The key outcome to defining these terms is the baggage carried by “pity,” the kindness expressed through sympathy, the connection felt in empathy, and the emotional commitment defined by compassion. For that last: I feel your pain and want to do something about it.

The longer vocabulary activity required groups of three or four and at least an hour. In groups, students defined a word they were given on a slip of paper. Depending on how many students I had in class, I varied the words from year to year: fiction, nonfiction, narrative, novel, fantasy, science fiction, memoir, biography, lie, truth. Students found a definition, wrote a clear, short one-sentence version of what they found in the dictionary as it related to story, came up with two or three examples that would help their peers understand what the definition meant, and finally share the group findings with the rest of the class. The vocabulary terms mostly connect as pairs: fiction and nonfiction, for example.

Fantasy, for example, includes the use of supernatural elements. You cannot get there from here. Science fiction, by contrast, deals with extrapolating scientific possibility. You can get there from here. Most of what students think of as science fiction, Star Trek and Star Wars, for example, is a muddle of science and fantasy. That’s why when Margaret Atwood (who insists she doesn’t write SF) and Ursula K. Le Guin (who insisted on writing everything) met in Portland, people expected fur to fly. Early on in discussion, Le Guin asked Atwood for examples of SF and Atwood came up with movie titles. Le Guin said, “Oh, media,” and promptly changed the subject. (I could speculate on Atwood’s motivation for avoiding genre labels, but that’s another post.)

You might think that students would have those terms clear in their minds by the time they reached my class. A few did, but even in my Honors classes some still confused terms. I think some adults go through life confused about these terms.

In my classroom activity, the most important distinction was between lie and truth. Truth is not belief or hypothesis or wish-fulfillment. Truth is accurate and factual. Lie—here’s the real point I’ve been getting to all along—is an “untruth told with intent to deceive.” Students located that definition every time. And as I worked my way around the classroom, touching base with the clusters of students and especially helping them come up with familiar examples, the group that had drawn the slip reading “lie” was the most important.

A lie requires a person to say something untrue, to know it’s untrue, and to say it in such a way as to cause the listener to believe it is true.

If I ask you what time it is and your watch stopped half an hour so you mistakenly tell me it’s 9am when it’s really 8:30, you are not lying. You are mistaken.

In the middle of a sunny day, if you tell me it’s midnight, wink-wink, and laugh, you are not lying. You are joking.

If you tell me the wrong time deliberately for whatever reason and in a manner that I will trust you, that is an untruth told with intent to deceive. That is a LIE.

Something can be inaccurate or untrue without being a lie because a speaker can be mistaken or teasing or wrong without being a liar. If the speaker believes what he or she says, that is not a lie. A liar knows what they are saying is untrue but still tries to make me believe it. A liar. We have one of those already in national politics, someone who has presented untruths repeatedly and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Repeating a lie over and over may convince some people it’s true, but lies are not true, they are deliberate deception.

Calling someone a “liar” says more than that they have said something untrue. It insists that the person is deliberately telling an untruth, which they know to be an untruth, with the intention of fooling the hearer.

Calling someone a “damn liar” in a public forum because what they say is untrue but which they believe is inaccurate, and is untrue. It is also bad manners.

2 thoughts on “DEFINE TERMS

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