I'm hoping to find out the history of how "to lie" as in say something dishonest and "to lie" as in rest horizontally end up being spelled the same way.

To lie (lie, lied, lied): a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

To lie (lie, lay, lain): to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline.

I looked it up on etymonline, but they didn't provide much insight into that question. It says one is from early 12thC and the other late 12thC. I'm not well versed in Latin, so besides being able to tell that the roots are different in spelling, I couldn't make much from just looking at the roots, either.

If there's such a significant time gap, does that mean one decided to intentionally let the spelling clash? Or was the person coming up with the word unaware of the other? What happened back then?

Unless there's some clear reason (i.e. there's a meaningful connection between the two that I'm not seeing) why would one want the spelling to clash? I'm, of course, assuming nobody would intentionally want the spelling to clash. It would seem like they are way too common of words to end up clashing coincidentally. (At least from a 21stC perspective, but may be they weren't back in 12thC)

Does anyone have insight into what is the history behind their spelling clash? Or can you tell by looking at the Latin roots, something that's non-obvious to me?

  • 5
    The key point in this question is OP's "why would one want the spelling to clash?" As has been repeatedly pointed out here on ELU, there's no "English Language Design Committee" sitting in overall control of what people say (or indeed write, but writing is a very poor second to speech in the overall context of language development). They arise quite naturally in the first place, and provided there's no real scope for ambiguity, there's no pressure for homophones or homographs to be weeded out. So I'm voting to re-close, since I didn't use up my vote to close first time around. Dec 10, 2012 at 3:03
  • '[...] no "English Language Design Committee"' unless you consider the work of Noah Webster and his contemporaries.
    – Ian Atkin
    Dec 13, 2012 at 22:29
  • Many people have published their opinions about English and some, for example Webster, Murray and Fowler, have been influential. However, there is not, and never has been, any officially recognised individual or committee with the power to dictate what we should say and write or how we should say and write it.
    – tunny
    Nov 6, 2014 at 10:43

4 Answers 4


Taken from Online Etymology Dictionary

lie (v.1)

"speak falsely, tell an untruth," late 12c., from O.E. legan, ligan, earlier leogan "deceive, belie, betray" (class II strong verb; past tense leag, pp. logen), from P.Gmc. *leugan (cf. O.N. ljuga, Dan. lyve, O.Fris. liaga, O.S., O.H.G. liogan, Ger. lügen, Goth. liugan), from PIE root *leugh- "to tell a lie."

lie (v.2)

"rest horizontally," early 12c., from O.E. licgan (class V strong verb; past tense læg, pp. legen) "be situated, reamin; be at rest, lie down," from P.Gmc. *legjanan (cf. O.N. liggja, O.Fris. lidzia, M.Du. ligghen, Du. liggen, O.H.G. ligen, Ger. liegen, Goth. ligan), from PIE *legh- "to lie, lay" (cf. Hittite laggari "falls, lies," Gk. lekhesthai "to lie down," L. lectus "bed," O.C.S. lego "to lie down," Lith. at-lagai "fallow land," O.Ir. laigim "I lie down," Ir. luighe "couch, grave"). To lie with "have sexual intercourse" is from c.1300, and cf. O.E. licgan mid "cohabit with." To take (something) lying down "passively, submissively" is from 1854.

You can see that both words have different roots (legan v. licgan) but converged together in terms of spelling. It is apparently, totally coincidental as you can see there is no similarity in meaning or prior spelling along the way.

  • Yes, I did look that up on Etymo-online, but I was hoping to get some more info... If it's conclusive to say that they were coincidental from just reading Etymo online, I wonder if that implies that in order for them to converge coincidentally I wonder if that means they were being used in different regions or something so that one word came about in the absence of another? Dec 9, 2012 at 16:21
  • BTW, apologies for not having explicitly stated above where I've already looked. I feel as if I have wasted your time. Dec 9, 2012 at 18:01
  • @SeungChanLim: that's why it's always a good idea to present your prior research with the question. I thought you did pretty well with your edit, though. Stick around and keep up the good work. Incidentally, you might find it interesting that, 300 years ago, "LIES" was often spelled with a "Y" instead of an "I", at least in cemeteries.
    – J.R.
    Dec 13, 2012 at 22:10
  • Here lyes the body of Edward Dean
    – Ian Atkin
    Dec 13, 2012 at 22:29
  • @J.R. Ha.... Fascinating... Thanks for that info! and Ian for the photo! Dec 13, 2012 at 23:38

To some extent, the question arises from looking at the situation backwards. An example: somebody experiences a coincidence or event that should happen as a rarity, and their reaction is "what are the odds of this happening?"

The odds of it happening to a specific person at a specific time might be infinitesimal, but the odds may be virtually 100% of it happening sooner or later to somebody, somewhere, sometime. In reality, it would be improbable for it to not ever happen. That person just turned out to be the somebody to whom it happened.

English has tens of thousands of words. They are formed from a limited number of letter combinations and evolution is generally in the direction of dropping letters to shorten words. The laws of probability predict that some words will end up spelled the same.

English users don't have insurmountable problems when different words are spelled the same, so there isn't a pressing need to force words into different spellings to keep them unique, or to prohibit the dropping of letters that allow different words to become spelled the same.

There are many words that have become spelled the same. You can select a particular pair and ask why, as if it is surprising that those two words ended up spelled alike. But the reality is that there isn't much special about any example you pick. Natural forces of language produce such examples, and random actions of history play a big role in which words end up that way.

  • 1
    Your second paragraph sounds quantum-theory-esque. lol.
    – iMerchant
    Oct 13, 2017 at 10:44

Have a look at German where the verbs are "liegen" and "lügen" (to tell something untrue"). They are very similar. So I would not be astonished that in English they have the same form. If such things happen then the sentence structures of the two identical words is so different that there is no danger of misunderstanding.

We have the same case with German "hatte" (had, normal past) and "hätte" (had*, past subjunctive). In English the two verb forms are identical and this can lead to real misunderstanding. To avoid misunderstanding English uses had* only in a very restricted way (e.g. after "if") and has replaced had* by "would have".


The similarities are between lie and lay. Copying from one site,

The "lie versus lay" debate is particularly confusing, for 3 main reasons:

1.) Their spellings are similar, but not the same.

2.) Their meanings are similar, but not the same.

3.) The past tense of lie is the present tense of lay...

The past tense of lie is lay.

The tiger lay on the ground.

The past tense of lay is laid.

I laid my hat on the shelf.

Another interesting thing about lie is there's a phrase called "lying down" which means "to passively accept something"


Lie means to be in a horizontal position or be situated and it DOES NOT take a direct object. example: I just want to lie down and go to sleep.

Lie also means to tell a falsehood, and it does not take a direct object. example:Whenever someone asks me my age: I lie.

See the tenses of each of these words.

Lay (lay, laid, laid): I lay spoons on the table. I laid spoons on the table. I have laid spoons on the table.
Lie (lie, lay, lain): I need to lie down. I was tired so I lay down. I am comfortable now that I have laid down.
Lie (lie, lied, lied): I lie about my age. When asked my age: I lied. I have lied about my age.

  • 3
    This is informative, but unfortunately doesn't address OP's question, which is about two words which have the same spelling: the strong verb lie you write about and the weak verb lie meaning prevaricate or mislead. Dec 9, 2012 at 19:55

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