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Q From Dean Riley: I recently told my grandchild not to tell fibs. The word fibs stuck in my head as something heard commonly in my long-ago youth, but not these days. The dictionary and Google did not offer much. What can you tell us about fibs?

A Surprisingly little, to tell the truth. It’s one of those elusive little words that have slipped into the language without anybody much noticing.

A fib is the childish cousin to the grown-up untruth, falsehood or lie, a naive attempt at bending reality that’s fit only for nursery school. A child may fib from not knowing the consequences but an adult called a fibber is condemned by it as an incompetent deceiver, a purveyor of porkies well past their sell-by date.

It seems always to have been an unkind or trivial lie, though in its earliest days it was a word for adults and only slowly took on its associations with minor childhood misdemeanours. The Oxford English Dictionary says it was first printed in Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionary of the French and English Tongues in 1611. He used it to translate French bourde, which then meant a lie (the modern sense is more of a blunder or error).

Reference works sometimes point to fible-fable as a possible origin. This looks like a reduplication of fable, and seems to have been a way of describing nonsense such as a tall story or a flight of fancy rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead. Experts treat this origin with caution, because there is only one recorded example, in a 1581 translation by James Bell of a Latin polemic by Walter Haddon and John Foxe.

The guess is that the first half of fible-fable, a nonsense word, broke away to form a new word and was shortened. Fible-fable might never have been noticed were it not for a nineteenth-century philologist named James Orchard Halliwell, who included it in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words.

Other than that, the origin of fib remains obscure.

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Page created 20 Apr 2013