Hypocrite or Just Liar?

By Maeve Maddox

The word hypocrite is especially popular during election season. Here’s a small sampling from the Web:

Former Senator Landrieu calls Jindal ‘a hypocrite’

Wall Street executives are fighting back against Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, branding [him] a hypocrite for attacking the big banks.

Carly Fiorina Slams Tim Cook As A Hypocrite For Indiana Criticism.

Black Professor Calls Ben Carson Hypocrite

Carly Fiorina Slams Hillary Clinton As a Hypocrite

What exactly do writers and political partisans mean when they call people hypocrites?

The word derives from Greek. The original hypocrite was an actor. Hypocrisy was the acting of a part, pretending to be someone other than the character being portrayed.

As early as the thirteenth century, the words hypocrisy and hypocrite were used in English to refer to the assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness and to a person who did so.

In 1664, the French dramatist Molière wrote the play Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur. The central character, Tartuffe, pretends to be deeply religious, but privately practices blackmail and does all he can to seduce a young woman. Tartuffe has become an eponym meaning, “a hypocritical pretender to religion.”

Outside a religious context, a hypocrite is one who pretends to civic virtue or moral excellence while practicing their opposite in private.

A man known to be a womanizer is not a hypocrite. He may aptly be called a lecher or a libertine, but, because his behavior is practiced openly, he’s not a hypocrite.

The man who presents the public image of a faithful husband and is discovered to be a philanderer or worse, is a hypocrite.

The word hypocrisy is defined by the OED as “the assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, especially in respect of religious life or beliefs.”

Merriam-Webster defines hypocrisy as “the act or practice of pretending to be what one is not or to have principles or beliefs that one does not have.”

Perhaps the most common popular use of hypocrite is in the sense of “a person who says one thing and does another.” Here are typical examples of the kind of hypocrisy noted of political figures:

Saying you believe in equal pay for equal work and paying your own female employees less than the men for the same work.

Calling for severe penalties on employing illegal immigrants and hiring an undocumented housekeeper for your own family.

Pretending to be appalled by recreational drug use and using drugs in secrecy.

Declaring yourself a supporter of gender equality and expecting the only woman in the room to serve the coffee.

No question, sometimes the words hypocrite, hypocrisy, and hypocritical are the correct choices, but not always.

Sometimes words like liar, dishonesty, and wishy-washy would be more apt when the context is telling outright lies, breaking the law, or flip-flopping on political positions without regard to principle.

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