I can almost remember the first time I had ever heard/saw the word 'equivocate', probably in some junior-high vocabulary lesson. Like with many latinate neologisms, at first blush it sounds weak and meaningless, its constituent parts don't combine directly to the given definition.

But my memory of the definition was that the teacher (or authority, or my memory of those) said it meant 'to lie, to present a falsehood'. The word sounds like a euphemism to me, an obscurantism, instead of baldly stating 'a lie'.

But now many years later and many uses and hearings of it, I find that the dictionary rendering is essentially 'to be ambiguous with the intention of misleading'. And that is definitely not 'lying'; it's close, and it's related, but it is not the same.

So now, I want to really know, which is it? Is it 'lying by willfully misleading with ambiguous language' or is it 'willfully misleading with ambiguous language, but can also be used for "lying"' or just 'willfully misleading, not lying per se, you'd have to do something extra to be considered lying'.

5 Answers 5


I agree that it is related to lying but not the same. I wouldn't like to say it is worse... putting these terms, lie, prevaricate, equivocate, etc. on some sort of scale would likely involve a contentious moral debate. Anyway, here is what the dictionary says it is:

use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself:

To my mind the second part there is key: I think of it as doing your utmost to neither lie nor tell the truth. It's the sort of thing politicians are usually highly adept at.

  • 1
    argh...there's also 'dissemble'. They can't all be the same, can they?
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 12, 2011 at 2:54

Technically, equivocation is the use of ambiguous or equivocal language - language that has two (or more) different meanings. It is also the name of a closely related logical fallacy involving words or terms with multiple meanings.

In principle, this can be done without any intent to deceive; the ambiguity might be purely accidental, or used deliberately for comic effect. But it is frequently intended to mislead the audience or to avoid giving a straight answer.

Equivocation was famously used by Jesuit priests to deny their catholic faith to hostile English protestant authorities, while convincing themselves that they had not sinned by actually lying.

Hence equivocate has come to have a strong implication of deceit.

But I don't see it as a synonym for "lie". You can lie without equivocation (no ambiguous language) and you can equivocate to avoid answering a question without lying.

  • 1
    For example "I really couldn't say" is often taken to mean "I don't know" - used where "I don't know" is a lie, it's technically not lying, but it deceives. Answers like "I don't recall precisely" or "I never broke the laws of my country" would also fit into this category. Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 2:24

"Waffle" is closer to "equivocate". Frequently, people equivocate when they don't have the courage to lie directly, or don't want to be pinned down as to having taken a specific position on an issue.

  • Is it really? I thought equivocation was more like saying asking something about X, in a context where they'll assume X means one thing, and then treating the answer as though it applied to some other meaning of X.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 22:32

To equivocate is, for example, using ambiguous words counting of the fact who is listening misunderstands what you are saying; to lie is to say the opposite of what you should have said (e.g. answering with no when the answer should have been yes).

  • To continue your example, if the answer should be yes, then to lie would be no, and to equivocate would be possibly some might thinks so, but one can never really be sure about things like this
    – Benubird
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 9:29

"Prevaricate" must be the word you remember. It means "to lie."

"Equivocate" is to express indecision, I believe. Well, maybe not. Maybe "equivocation" is to argue ("voc") both sides of a question with the same ("equi") ardor. No, I think it's more the indecision thingy. What do you think? Whatever you say is OK by me. Or maybe it has something to do with horses ("equ"). I don't know. Ask Robusto.

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