WE all know the Great Lies of Modern Times: the routine phrases people and businesses use in the full knowledge that they are totally untrue.
In everyday life, the biggest Great Lie is ‘Your call is important to us’. If your call really were important, it would be picked up by a human being.
In close pursuit are ‘Easy to assemble’, then, in any food packaging, ‘Serves 2’ (only if the two are gerbils on a diet).
In fourth place ‘You can’t miss it’. Then comes ‘Fun for all the family’. Any attraction thus promoted will reduce even the happiest families to boredom, bitterness and battles within an hour or less.
An announcement that ‘There is no cause for alarm’ always conceals a good reason to panic. Sometimes this Great Lie is accidentally converted into truth when the announcer says ‘There is no cause for unnecessary alarm’.
Now three from social life: ‘Of course it’s not too much trouble’ (‘I’m too weak to say No’), ‘You must give me the recipe’ (‘So that I don’t make it by mistake’) and ‘I’d love to come but it depends when the engineer has finished’. This Great Lie is often followed by a (fake) account of the long search and wait for the engineer, whose appointments are rarer than transits of Venus across the Sun.
‘Sorry, the bank transfer must have failed’ has replaced the traditional Great Lie of cheque-in-the-post.
‘Stand still and it won’t attack you’ is a very dangerous Great Lie about any creature from a bee to a bear. There is a variant Great Lie for snapping, slobbering or sex-crazed dogs who attack unsuspecting visitors: ‘He likes you.’
‘I’m afraid you’re breaking up’ is a common Great Lie to end a tiresome mobile telephone conversation.
In the sporting world ‘Well played! Good game!’ is always a Great Lie from losers (and usually from winners, assuming that they remember to
‘You’ll love it once you’re in’ is a multi-use Great Lie, applied regularly to cold water, marketing schemes and almost any new proposal by the European Union.
In working life, two habitual Great Lies are ‘Sorry I couldn’t get back earlier – I’ve been snowed under’ and its near-equivalent ‘Sorry, I didn’t get your email, could you please re-send it?’
In the world of entertainment: ‘Award-winning/record-breaking/unforgettable’, especially if applied to a musical comedy.
Polite but desperate is the Great Lie ‘He/she has real talent’, especially when applied to children or pets.
The top abbreviated Great Lie is GSOH. Tell your best joke to someone who claims a GSOH and you will have to explain it for the next two hours. Even after the explanation, you will be able to freeze meat safely in GSOH’s response.
In any conversation ‘That’s amazing!’ is a sure sign that the user has not been listening. It’s the kind of thing Sybil Fawlty used to say in her endless dialogues on the hotel telephone
with her troubled invisible friend Audrey.
Finally, in any everyday context ‘To be perfectly honest with you…’ is always followed by an absolute whopper.
In political and official life, it is now hard to find any common phrase which is not a Great Lie (especially from Donald Trump) but there are some standouts.
‘Lessons have been learned’. Note the passive mood, always a giveaway of something hidden. This Great Lie means that no one has been punished for the disaster in question, which is very likely to be repeated.
An ever-more-common Great Lie comes from organisations who claim to be ‘in a better place’. This could mean truthfully that they have moved to more expensive offices. However, it is nearly always a managerial bromide which means that they have a higher opinion of themselves for no obvious reason.
‘We have consulted widely and paid careful attention to the responses’. The first part might be true because governments and organisations sometimes admit that they are clueless and ask for help, but the second part is always a Great Lie.
‘I welcome this debate/the chance to put the record straight’. This Great Lie is a regular opening by Ministers too slow to dodge responsibility for an embarrassing failure. This is
often followed by ‘It may be helpful if I give some background to the decision’. Not so. It is never helpful except to the user, in filling time and creating the opportunity for further lies.
‘We are making changes to improve our service.’ Oh puh-lease!
‘We have made our concerns on human rights known to the government of Repressia.’ In a whisper, after we signed the arms contract. Similarly, ‘All our arms exports to Repressia are carefully monitored’ – to see if we can sell them something more expensive. Among untold examples from modern warfare, outstanding Great Lies are ‘precision bombing’ and its near relative ‘surgical strikes’.
Countless ugly buildings and wasteful projects have been launched by the Great Lie ‘… will create thousands of new jobs for local people’. In fairness, some local people may find jobs cleaning up the rubbish they leave behind.
Finally, in any official context a single word is the biggest Great Lie of them all – ‘Urgent’.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey.