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The word truth might seem to be quite easy…

Like a lot of words, we think about it not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it is not.

Love and hate. Awake and asleep. Alive and dead. Male and Female.

All these words seem to be not only binary opposite, but often they seem the only options.

And, so it is with truth. If it’s a lie, it’s not the truth. If it’s the truth, it’s not a lie.

Consider this situation:

A girl finds out that her best friend’s boyfriend is cheating on her. She sits her friend down, and tells her. Her friend goes home and confronts her boyfriend, who explains that he is not cheating, and proves it.

The girl was not lying. But nor was she telling the truth.

How about this:

Obama and Romney both stood in the U.S. Presidential elections. When Obama got the position, Romney phoned him to congratulate him (or so we were told).

Do you think he was being sincere in these congratulations? If not, was he lying? If he was lying, then it can’t have been true.

Another scenario:

There’s a dancing competition in a town; the reigning champion is going up against the new kid on the block. The previous winner turns to the new competitor and says “I’d back down now, if I were you”.

Here we have several things going on… a) if they were actually the other dancer, would they back down? If not, it’s an untruth. b) this is advice, although in the form of a statement. Whether or not advice is sincere or not, whether it’s in the best interest of the other person or not, can it be considered as a truth or lie? And c) this is talk rather than advice from one friend to another. It’s there to make someone intimidated. Can it still be considered in terms of truth and lies?

What happens if I bet someone a packet of skittles that the can’t spell onomatopoeia. Unfortunately for me, they’re a spelling whizz, and they manage it. However, I don’t pay up. Did I lie? What if I don’t pay up because we didn’t shake on it?

The last example there is a performative. Another example of a performative is marriage.

If I got two people up to the front of a lecture theatre, a guy and a girl, and got them to repeat some vows, and than said “I now pronounce you man and wife”, am I lying? I’m not an officiant, I can’t marry people.

In the case of marriage, a lot more happens than that.

What if an officiant marries two people, they sign a piece of paper… But they’re both male, in an area where gay marriage isn’t legal?

Plenty of books deal with issues around the marriage performative. You may remember Violet marrying Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events… Expect, cleverly, she signs with her left hand, despite being right-handed, so it was void. In Jane Eyre, it is uncovered that Rochester is already married.

To be a little unsavoury, a marriage isn’t actually legal if it isn’t consummated (except in the case of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages).

To save out brains from melting in a mush of truth and falsity, another word describes what is being described here: felicity. In the case of performatives, a statement can be either felicitous or infelicitous: You may have meant to Christian the boat Sally when you smashed the champagne against the hull, but it was infelicitous because it says Mary on it.

You weren’t lying, it was simply infelicitous.