Alternatives

Two recent items about alternative expressions: an occurrence of whimsiness (where you might have expected whimsicality), and one of the count noun mistruth (where you might have expected untruth).

Both are in the OED and both are in the Collins online (and count as legitimate words in Scrabble), but neither is in NOAD2 or most other one-volume dictionaries.

whimsiness. From Schumpeter’s column in the April 18th Economist, “A very British business: Some lessons from the success of Britain’s elite private schools”:

They are known, quaintly, as “public schools”, though they are certainly not open to just anyone. Their names — Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Fettes — conjure up images of striped blazers and straw boaters, speech days and rugger matches. Be not deceived: for all their whimsiness, these are some of the world’s most ruthless businesses.

whimsiness, whimsy + -ness, is unexpected because the derivational suffix -ness usually forms abstract nouns from adjectives, but whimsy is a noun. Despite that, OED2 has one cite (but only one) for it:

1909   Daily Chron. 14 Sept. 5/3   To..indulge his political whimsiness.

and there is an occurrence in Moby-Dick:

With a wild whimsiness, he [Queequeg] now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there.

But ordinarily, to get a derived abstract noun from whimsy, you’d have to go through the adjective whimsical — from which we get (preferably) whimsicality, or else whimsicalness. (On –ity vs. –ness, taking off from humbleness where humility might have been expected, see my 4/15/15 posting on the matter.)

The count noun mistruth. Robert Coren on Facebook on the 20th:

From a letter to today’s _Boston Globe_: “It was only after corporate interests outspent bottle-bill proponents almost 7 to 1 and ran ads laced with mistruths that the public voted it down.”

“Mistruths”? Has anyone ever seen this before? Arnold? Anyone?

Betsy Herrington googled on the word and found lots of references to Nelson Mandela:

1994, Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Abacus 2010, p. 81: In my brief stay in Johannesburg, I had left a trail of mistruths and, in each case, the falsehood had come back to haunt me.

(with the count noun mistruth rather than the much more common alternative untruth, and with this noun paired with yet another alternative, falsehood; there’s also one further alternative, non-truth).

Two Facebook commenters were unruffled by mistruth:

Andrew Carnie: It’s certainly the word I would use.

Michael Siemon: I think the word has been an unexceptionable part of my vocabulary since at least my late teens, i.e. early-to-mid-1960s. It never struck me as odd.

And OED3 (June 2002) has an entry for mistruth, in two parts: an obsolete mass noun ‘disbelief, unbelief; unfaithfulness’ in Scottish English, with cites from c1480 and c1485; and a count noun with a first cite in 1897:

A false or incorrect proposition or statement; (in later use freq. euphem.) a lie. Also: falsehood [abstract mass noun].

Three cites, all from respectable sources:

1897   Methodist Rev. Jan. 28   The mistruths of philosophy were its defects, its shortcomings from that whole and perfect truth which is in Christ Jesus.

1960   Times 15 June 7/4   The editorial recalls that the complaints were in the first place against specific errors of fact, mistruths, and mis-statements.

2008   Toronto Star (Nexis) 8 Mar. a19   He was just using his don’t-quote-me status to tell mistruths to the press.

Now, about the derivational prefixes at work in non-truth, untruth, and mistruth., from Michael Quinion’s affixes site.

The prefix non ‘not’:

This prefix is more widely used to form negatives than any other. It is freely added to nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and also to verbs used to form adjectives. In general the sense is neutral, without the implications often present with compounds in a-, in-, or un-; for example inhuman, non-human, and unhuman all refer to something lacking human qualities, but the first is usually pejorative, implying cruelty or barbarism, while the latter two are neutral; amoral and immoral usually imply a value judgement, while non-moral does not.

However, negatives in non- can contain the idea of pretence, inadequacy, or unimportance, as in non-event, non-story, non-hero, non-issue. Some adjectives formed from verbs have a sense of not causing something (non-crease, non-skid, non-stick), or not requiring something (non-iron).

The prefix un ‘opposite’ [there is also a reversative un-, as in untangle, which I’ll disregard here]:

This prefix occurs extremely widely; the majority of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs (and many nouns) can in principle be given it to create a new word indicating an opposite …

A very few of the many examples in the sense of ‘not’ are unconnected, unenclosed, unfashionable, unhappy, unloved, unmade, unsuitable, and unwilling. In this sense, un- often has a stronger and less neutral force than just negation (so it is not equivalent to non-): unkind can mean active cruelty rather than a simple lack of kindness; to say someone is un-American can imply an active antagonism to American ways.

Un- is closely related in sense to in-…, but although the latter prefix is common it is no longer active. There is no good rule to decide which is the right form in any given situation and terms have to be learnt. To confuse matters somewhat, some noun-adjective pairs use different prefixes: instability corresponds to unstable; inequality to unequal; injustice to unjust. In a few cases, pairs of adjectives exist in both prefixes with similar senses: inadvisable and unadvisable; incommunicative and uncommunicative. In a few other pairs, members have significantly different senses, as with unhuman, not resembling or having the qualities of a human being, versus inhuman, lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy.

A nice discussion of affix choice, but not focused on un– as a prefix deriving count nouns. In any case, an untruth is the opposite of a truth — that is, a falsehood.

The prefix mis-, more complex than the others:

[Old English, of Germanic origin; Old French mes- (based on Latin minus).]

Words from the two sources eventually became the same in both meaning and form, though those from Old French mes- are less common. Both forms imply something is awry, wrong, bad, or unsuitable.

Examples from Old English and Old French include misadventure, misbehave, mischance, mischief, misdeed, misfortune, mishap (from the archaic hap, chance or good fortune), mislead, mismanage, misprint, and misrepresent.

The form is currently active and some modern examples are mislabelling, incorrect labelling of goods; mis-selling, selling something to a customer for whom it is an inappropriate purchase; and misaligned, imperfectly or badly aligned.

So a mistruth is an untruth plus some suggestion of truth gone awry — which is where the sense ‘lie’ in the OED entry comes from.

Now, as is common when we have alternatives that can be seen as subtly differentiated in certain special contexts, the alternatives will be seen as virtually equivalent in many contexts, and it will then be often pointless to try to decide which of the count nouns falsehood, untruth, and mistruth is the best choice. Let variation flourish.

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