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The words to describe lies are as varied and colorful as many lies themselves-especially when they’re lies told in court. “Perjury” and “contempt” are just two of the many legal terms to describe fibbing. In Black’s Law Dictionary, the entry for “false” includes a list of 21 synonyms, including such stalwarts as “false representations,” “misrepresentations,” “frauds” and “deceits,” “counterfeits” and “forgeries.” But the one term you won’t find in Black’s is “lying.” Which is odd, since the law doesn’t exactly shrink from unpleasant words; “murder,” “rape,” and “bastard” all have their place in the legal lexicon. But for some reason, the law likes to tiptoe around the subject of, well, prevarication. For one thing, lawyers love to use Latin when discussing falsehoods; it adds a touch of elegance to an otherwise tawdry subject. In legal Latin, a fabrication is transformed into the almost-refined suggestio falsi, and a failure to tell the truth becomes a mere suppresio veri. “Perjury”-although it is now an English word-actually began life as yet another Latin euphemism. It comes from periurium, or oath-breaking. When if first appeared in English statutes in the fifteenth century, it was intended to replace the Old English “forswearing,” which meant both swearing falsely and renouncing an oath. Today, “perjury” means deliberately lying about an important (or material) fact while under oath. When a witness is caught perjuring himself, the opposing lawyers will argue that the witness’s entire testimony should be discredited; or, in the traditional legal formulation: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. Also from Latin comes “subornation of perjury,” or inducing another to commit perjury. Subornation is formed by sub (under) plus ornare (to equip, related to ornate). The first recorded reference to subornation of perjury appears in the 1588 book Lawier’s Logike. “Fraud” is the broadest legal term for dishonesty. The word comes from the Latin fraus, meaning deceit or injury. Although it is but a monosyllabic word, “fraud” inspires judges to new heights of eloquence. A former justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court once described fraud as “the evil of evils . . . It is the match in the hayloft, the serpent in the garden, the weasel in the chicken yard, the spider in the web, the false bottom to the pool.” The verb form of “fraud” is “to defraud.” This is confusing, since “defraud” sounds like a good thing-as in, “I called the police and they were able to defraud the situation.” But in “defraud,” the “de” prefix acts as an intensifier. Like “fraud” itself, “defraud” has roots in classical Latin, from the verb defraudare. In law, however, some lies are positively necessary. A “feigned accomplice” is one of the law’s more helpful liars: a person who pretends to conspire with others in the commission of a crime, but only for the purpose of tipping off authorities. Arguably, the very existence of law depends on lies-a very peculiar set of lies known as “legal fictions,” or assumptions made by courts of facts known to be untrue. Consider orders made nunc pro tunc (now for then, i.e., retroactively) or the Fertile Octogenarian Rule (the presumption that every person is capable of procreation regardless of age). Or take the legal term “constructive,” as used in phrases like “constructive eviction” or “constructive delivery.” It generally means “treat something as though it happened even though you and I know it didn’t.” Viewed objectively, these are nothing more than legally sanctioned lies. But, of course, they never did anybody any harm. Honestly. Adam Freedman is an in-house lawyer practicing in New York. His book on legal language, The Party of the First Part, will be published by Henry Holt in September. A version of this article originally appeared in Corporate Counsels sibling publication New York Law Journal Magazine.

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