What do you mean?

I have to admit there are some concepts that I have always felt needed to be clarified -tagged and categorized. Maybe the names have always existed, but as the years have rampaged through my body with its neural networks increasingly clogged, my memory has retreated behind the ramparts, and whatever omniscience I once possessed has shrunk. I suppose that’s to be expected, but I figure that’s what the apps on my phone are for: epiphanies… Okay, maybe just unexpected things: new words.

Like vranyo, a word from the Slavic language family common to both Russia and the Ukraine. It is usually disguised in its Cyrillic script however, so I do not feel a sense of shame if I am unable to identify it in a crowd. Still, it is probably a good idea not to mistake it for its cousin, lozh. They both wear totally different Cyrillic uniforms and have dissimilar medals pinned to their chests, so even a monoglot like myself would be unlikely to mistake them for twins or anything. Anyway, both of them mean something like ‘untruth’ so you have to be careful.

Although there appears to be some confusion as to their rank, apparently lozh indicates milder lying: sort-of lying, or maybe even simple-lying; whereas vranyo jumps right in with a more pejorative flare: something so outlandish it should not be taken as seriously because everybody knows it is a lie. ‘Vranyo is not about the proposition itself – it focuses attention on the lie-tellers and why they are lying.’[i] It is a tongue-in-cheek story, or more destructively, a form of deliberate misinformation.

But, as is painfully evident, I am not a philologist, so there may be some pushback on the nuances of vranyo; I am just pleased that there seems to be a word that more accurately describes a bald-faced, scarcely credible mangling of the truth. In terms of politics, it boils down to propaganda; in everyday conversation, it is a statement equivalent to ‘The dog ate my homework.’ In the world at large -especially nowadays… well, pick a dictator…

The question arises, though, as to whether vranyo is sometimes not so much evasiveness, as contempt; as if the recipient doesn’t deserve a better lie. Maybe even the touted meaning of vranyo is itself a vranyo: a petitio principii… or maybe not.

But, obviously, vranyo is not only practiced by politicians and military commanders; I think most people have dipped their toes into it from time to time.

I noticed it a lot in my younger years in university; I’m not sure the word had been framed as an outlier in those early times, but I think I had. Well, perhaps not really an outlier so much as a loose cannon -someone it was best not to invite to dinner with adults, or to a party with alcohol. It wasn’t the amount of alcohol I consumed, mind you, but more the fact that one glass of wine liberated my mouth and all that was going on behind it. No one, myself included, knew what I was going to say or knock over while reaching for a second helping of potatoes, or the last remaining cookie.

It was, it seemed, safer not to request my presence, and as time went on, the excuses for not inviting me became more and more complex -ingenious, really. Nobody wanted to be accused of hurting my feelings I suppose, and so their explanations had to sound plausible, even if somewhat vranyous… 

I remember a special dinner held in my faculty just before Christmas one year. A well respected professor from Toronto had been invited, as well as a few of the students who had shown some interest in doing post grad work in our department: promising students, clever students, quiet students who could be counted on to behave.

All of the profs knew I was considering a postgrad in Philosophy; they also knew I had a habit of saying inappropriate philosophical things in rather unphilosophic terms at decidedly awkward moments -like when nobody else seemed to be contributing epistemologically. Anyway, I was not invited.

I decided to phone the head of the department to see if a mistake had been made, an inadvertent oversight in his excitement at having to entertain a prestigious visitor from another university.

“Excuse me Dr. Wilson,” I started, trying to read what I had written on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget anything and yet sound as if it were spontaneously conceived. “ It’s G,” I said, even though he clearly knew who I was -everybody in the department recognized my voice. “I understand that you have invited some of the students in my class to dinner to hear Dr. Wilstowe from the U of T speak…” I hesitated politely for him to think about the dinner. “I was wondering if there’s another seat at the table. I’ve always been interested in Dr. Wilstowe’s view on epiphenomenalism…”

There was a prolonged silence at the end of the line; perhaps he was looking for his notes. “Well, actually, Dr. Wilstowe just contacted me today to inform me there’s some sickness in her family and so she isn’t certain she will be able make it…”

“Oh,” I said, making it up on the fly, “I just read an article in the University paper, about some honorary award she was going to receive here…” That seemed like a good bet, otherwise why would she fly all the way to Vancouver from Toronto at Christmas?

He seemed surprised. “Oh, that leaked out did it? It was meant to be a surprise for our faculty…”

Come on! I could have done better than that! So I thought I’d put a little pressure on him. “Oh dear, I’m sorry about that…” I hesitated for a respectful second or two. “But I suppose that leaves an extra seat at the table, eh?”

He chuckled politely. “No, if she doesn’t arrive, Manisha -our post-doc, remember- said she’d be glad to prepare something -just in case…”

“Wonderful!” I said enthusiastically. “The name Manisha apparently means ‘intellect’ in Hindi, or something; she introduced us to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir I remember. It interested me so much, I actually found a copy of ‘The Second Sex’ to learn more about the treatment of women throughout history… Fascinating stuff! Manisha would be a great replacement if Dr. Wilstowe can’t make it…” Another pause, to plant a seed of guilt in Wilson’s brain.

“She certainly would be… But she says she gets nervous if she has to speak to a large group, so she specifically asked if it would be okay to bring her partner for support.” He snuffled, or something and then said, “Unfortunately we have limited seating available… so if her partner comes, I think we’re at our limit again.”

I was going to tell him I’d eat standing up, when somebody -his secretary probably- must have tapped him on the shoulder. I could hear a voice in the background saying that Donald Sayers, a post doc wannabe like me, had just cancelled. “Well, G,” he continued as if there’d been no interruption, “Sayers just cancelled, so that will work out fine with the seating now.”

I was about to thank him when he continued. “Dr. Wilstowe had wanted to bring her husband along from Toronto, so thank goodness I can phone her and tell her that will work just fine.”

“Uhmm, I thought there was some sort of sickness in her family; that’s why she might not be able to come…”

“Oh, did I say that, G? I must have been mixing her up with another speaker we had booked for mid-January…”

I never did get invited to that dinner, but I heard that they had served undercooked chicken with lumpy potatoes, and anyway, some of my friends who had attended were throwing up the next day. Maybe there is a god -even if it does resemble Bertrand Russell’s invisible teapot… Or is that a petitio principii ? I never did do a post doc.

[i] https://theconversation.com/ukraine-war-vranyo-russian-for-when-you-lie-and-everyone-knows-it-but-you-dont-care-181100

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