Here’s a fun story to set us off on this discussion about vocabulary: Last year, I attended a conference in New Orleans, and after the conference one evening, I was in the French Quarter, walking down Bourbon Street on the way to dinner with some colleagues. Just then, a man popped up out of the crowd right in front of me…
He pulled out a five-dollar bill said, “I bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes, and even what street you got your shoes on.”
Luckily for me, someone had tried this exact con on me over 20 years before the last time I was in New Orleans. I’d waited 20 years for this moment. I said to him, “How about I tell you? I got my shoes on my feet, and I got my feet on Bourbon Street. Now, can I have that five?” Smiling and shaking his head, he said, “Ahhh man,” and he pocketed the five, and he melted back into the crowd.
Unfortunately, we’ve all encountered someone who’s tried to con, lie, deceive, hoodwink, bamboozle, dupe, scam, bilk, or fleece us at one time or another in our lives. Fortunately, English has some wonderful words to describe liars and the lies they tell. Let’s consider two types of tricksters we’ve all encountered in our lives: mountebanks and sophists.
Shouting From The Benches
Imagine that you can’t sleep. You’re up late, watching TV again, channel surfing while munching a bag of potato chips, and you come upon an infomercial. The salesman seems a bit too slick for you. He claims he’s a doctor, and he’s giving you the hard sell on an extract from a root of a plant that you’ve never even heard of. He says the plant is only found in some remote location in the Amazon River basin and claims that it will cure everything from migraines to stomach aches to low testosterone levels. Needless to say, you’re skeptical of this self-proclaimed “expert’s” extravagant claims.
This is a transcript from the video series Building a Better Vocabulary. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
There is a wonderful word for this type of fast-talking conman who sells quack remedies—a mountebank. Mountebank is a flamboyant swindler, a flimflammer, someone who claims to be an expert but isn’t. Mountebanks often claim to be doctors, but they can just as easily claim to be any other type of expert. However, don’t be fooled. Underneath their authentic appearances, they are frauds and impostors.
Mountebank is a flamboyant swindler, a flimflammer, someone who claims to be an expert, but really isn’t.
Here’s the word mountebank used in context.
“Our town was completely duped by the slick-talking impostor who breezed into town, claimed to be a physician, and sold us his quack remedies. We didn’t realize he was a mountebank of the first order until after he left and we found his cure-alls were complete shams.”
As with so many words, the etymology of the word mountebank can help us remember its meaning. Mountebank comes from an Italian phrase meaning to mount a bench and refers to a quack doctor, or swindler, who would enter a town, mount a bench in the public square so the crowd could better see and hear him, and try to sell his fake potions to a susceptible public.
Learn more about words for lying, swindling, and conniving
Clever, But Not Necessarily Logical
Our second word refers to a different type of trickster, not one trying to sell you a counterfeit product, like a mountebank, but someone trying to sell you a counterfeit argument.Think back to a time you have watched a political debate. The first politician begins to construct her argument, and it’s compelling and you start to sway to that politician’s side. Then the second politician begins to rebut the first politician’s argument, poking holes in her reasoning, demonstrating how she played fast and loose with the facts. At this point in the debate, the veil is lifted from your eyes and you realize that this first politician was intentionally trying to deceive you with her verbal gymnastics. This first politician who initially tried to pull the wool over your eyes is a sophist. A sophist is a noun referring to one skilled in elaborate and devious argumentation. Sophists engage in clever arguments, specifically designed to persuade or convince others, not caring how sound or logical the arguments are, but trying to win the arguments with the splitting of words.
Sophists engage in clever arguments, specifically designed to persuade or convince others, not caring how sound or logical the arguments are, but trying to win the arguments with the splitting of words.
Let’s try sophist in context. “The debate team failed to win when the judges saw through their clever, but unsound, arguments and pegged them as the sophists that they were.”
Sophistry is a related word you will encounter that refers to the act of intentionally attempting to deceive someone with tricky, intellectually dishonest arguments. Sophist comes from the Greek root soph, meaning wise and skilled, or clever. For sophists, the emphasis is not on the wise, it’s on the skilled, and particularly, the clever. The sophists were professional, itinerant teachers in ancient Greece, who taught, among other things, rhetoric, or the art of persuasive speaking and writing.
These sophists were known for their clever, but not necessarily logical, arguments. Their detractors claimed that sophists weren’t on a journey to find the truth; they were simply trying to persuade others by any argumentative trick or intellectual sleight of hand that would enable them to win. In this light, you can see how sophist became a term of contempt. Being called a sophist is not a compliment.
Learn more about words relating to belief and trust
Now, what other related words do you already know that also begin with the soph root? How about sophomore? Sophomore contains the same Greek root and literally means a wise fool. Sophos means wise, and moros means foolish; it is the root from which the word moron is derived. Because sophomores have been in school just long enough to think that they know it all, some consider wise or clever fools an apt description for a sophomore.
The related-words strategy is another powerful approach for your vocabulary toolbox that’s based on the spelling-meaning connection. When you encounter or learn a new, unfamiliar word,try and connect it with a word you already know that’s spelled the same and/or that sounds the same. The next time you hear the word sophist, think of the initial part, soph, in the word sophomore, which means wise and clever, and you will remember that sophists were clever, tricky debaters and persuaders.
Naming the Argument
What can we call the arguments and claims made by mountebanks and sophists? Let’s explore three words for untrue claims and stories. As we’ve seen, sophists can be described as clever debaters who attempt to deceive you with plausible, but unfounded arguments. What would we call the type of argument delivered by a sophist, an argument that looks plausible on the surface, but that is fallacious underneath? The answer is our next target word—specious.
Specious is an adjective that means having the ring of truth or plausibility but is actually fallacious. Specious claims appear plausible, but they’re false. It is often used to describe arguments that aren’t simply false, they are, and this is an important distinction: deceptively plausible, arguments that look good on the surface, but aren’t when you analyze them and try to follow the chain of reasoning. They are intentionally misleading.
Specious is an adjective that means having the ring of truth or plausibility, but is actually fallacious.
The next time you see or hear a politician trying to persuade you with an argument this is deceptively plausible but plays fast and loose with the facts, you can impress your friends by saying, “That sophist sure is spewing forth specious arguments! I won’t trust another word he says.”
Specious comes from the Latin speciosus, meaning good looking, which comes from species, meaning appearance. A specious argument is an argument that appears or looks good on the surface but isn’t.
The next target word, spurious, is often used as a synonym for specious, but it has a slightly different connotation. Of course, there is no such thing as an exact synonym in English. Spurious is an adjective that means not genuine, authentic, false. Thus, like specious, spurious can refer to something, like an argument or claim, that is false, not genuine.
Learn more about words that express annoyance and disgust
The difference in meaning between specious and spurious is not a clear-cut, black-and-white difference in meaning, but rather, a difference in emphasis. Specious clearly implies fraud and intentional deception, but spurious does not necessarily imply fraud or intentional deception. A spurious argument could be false and misleading, but it could also be a false argument that is just an honest mistake. In contrast to that, specious arguments are definitely intended to deceive you.
To sum up the differences, if you want to emphasize that a false argument looked good, but was intentionally misleading, specious would be the better choice. If you want to emphasize that a false argument or claim is false, or was an honest mistake, spurious would probably be the better choice.
Our next target word is apocryphal. Using an apocryphal story, see if you can figure out what this word means.
This story was told to me by Uncle John, and he heard it from a friend of a friend, who said it was originally passed down from his second cousin’s grandmother. According to this story, it was once not uncommon for New Yorkers vacationing in Florida to bring back baby alligators as pets for their children. Of course, what these short-sighted parents didn’t plan for was the fact that these cute, little creatures would grow to be too large and dangerous to keep. Eventually flushed them down the toilets, into the sewers of New York City, where they bred and produced colonies of albino alligators with bulging eyes, who, to this day, thrive underneath the City that Never Sleeps. Do you believe this story? Do you think there might even be a kernel of truth in it? Is there any way to confirm its veracity?
This is an apocryphal story. Apocryphal is an adjective that means of doubtful or dubious authenticity. Many urban legends, like this alligator tale, are apocryphal. Use the word apocryphal if you want to emphasize that the story or claim is not only probably false, but is difficult to verify or even find evidence for. Think of how hard it would be to verify this story that came from my Uncle John, who heard it from the friend of a friend’s second cousin’s grandmother.
Originally, the Apocrypha were texts that were not included in the Bible because their authenticity could not be firmly established. Today, apocryphal stories, like the urban legend above, are referred to as apocryphal because they can’t be verified, and are, therefore, of doubtful authenticity.
Apocryphal is an adjective that means of doubtful or dubious authenticity, false.
Some other apocryphal stories that you might have heard include, a woman who, unbeknownst to her, had a nest of poisonous spiders living in her massive hairdo, or, the tales of Bigfoot, the hominid-like creature some believe lives in the Pacific Northwest. When you hear the word apocryphal, think of urban legends like this that can’t be verified.
So to Recap…
Let’s review our five words—mountebank, sophist, specious, spurious, and apocryphal. Try and identify which of the five words best describes the situations listed below.
- Situation 1. You are a history professor grading a paper written by Kevin, an extremely honest student who is struggling in your U.S. history class. You realize that Kevin’s argument in his essay, while not intentionally misleading, is illogical and false. It’s not valid. Would Kevin’s argument be best characterized as specious or spurious? Why? If you answered spurious, you are correct. Spurious can refer to an obviously false argument and/or a false argument that is not intended to deceive, whereas specious includes the connotation of a claim, argument, or story that appears to be valid and looks good, but is actually deceptive and false underneath.
- Situation 2. You’re in your favorite coffee shop just sitting down to a cup of joe and a mouth-watering chocolate croissant when a man running for town dogcatcher struts in, sits down, and tries to persuade you to vote for him in the upcoming election. At first, his arguments appear convincing, but as you and others question him, you slowly begin to realize that he’s intentionally trying to deceive you, twisting his opponent’s words and citing facts that simply aren’t true. Would you call this person a sophist or a mountebank? If you said sophist, you are correct. A sophist tries to convince you with clever arguments that sound wise at first but are not necessarily sound. Sophists deliver specious arguments.
- Situation 3. You are sitting at home on a quiet Saturday afternoon when you hear a knock at the door. You open it to a fast-talking, flamboyant salesman who claims to be in the medical profession, and he’s trying to sell you a super vitamin that he claims if you take it every day would make you invincible to flu, colds, and coughs. The longer he talks, the more skeptical you become. What could you call this person? A Mountebank.
- Situation 4. Have you ever heard the story about the vanishing hitchhiker? I first read this one on the Internet, but I couldn’t find any sources cited to verify it. A kindly motorist is driving down the road on a rainy night, and he comes upon a lonely hitchhiker. The kindly motorist decides to pick up the hitchhiker, who vanishes by the time they reach the hitchhiker’s destination. At the end of the story, the motorist meets the family of the hitchhiker, only to find out that the encounter took place on the anniversary of the hitchhiker’s death, which was years ago. Which of our words might describe this doubtful story? Apocryphal.
Common Questions About Words to Describe Liars
Spurious data refers to data that attempts to demonstrate causality between two events that are not causally related. For instance, an article might state that rising student test scores are related to rising rates in coffee consumption. Even though both of these events might be true on their own, coffee consumption is not necessarily causing the test scores to go up.
A con artist will deceive you into believing that he’s on your side. Often, he’ll pose as a caring individual who has your best interests at heart. A con artist leads you to believe that he is giving you a great deal when he is arranging everything so that he either ends up with a much better deal or completely scams you out of your money.
A fallacy applies to faulty reasoning, usually because the person using the fallacy lacks skills in forming solid arguments. A sophism, on the other hand, is an argument that sounds good on the surface but is false at its core; it is purposefully used to trick someone. Often, the person making the argument will use fancy language or lingo to throw the other person off.