At its annual meeting last week, the American Dialect Society selected insurrection as its word of the year for 2021. I’d originally picked insurrection myself, but switched to Big Lie, which, I argued, was the insurrection’s impetus and underpinning. Big Lie did make the ADS’s shortlist, though. And this week I’m looking at another shade of mendacity—one that was new to me until very recently: blue lie.
I came across blue lie in a New Yorker article by Evan Osnos about a hugely popular and scarily influential right-wing radio host: “Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power,” published in the magazine’s January 3 & 10 issue. Here’s the relevant passage:
Bongino, like other prominent supporters, seems to put increasing stock in what researchers refer to as “blue lies,” the kinds of claims that pull believers together and drive skeptics away. (“There were known issues with the election,” he said in December, adding, “We get that.”)
I’d known about “white lies,” of course—untruths told to help someone else, even at a cost to ourselves. There are also, according to some people fond of color categories, “black lies” (told out of selfishness), “gray lies” (told partly to help others, partly to help ourselves) and “red lies” (told out of spite or vengeance). But blue lies?
Here’s the Wikipedia definition*: “a form of lying that is told purportedly to benefit a collective or ‘in the name of the collective good’. The origin of the term ‘blue lie’ is possibly from cases where police officers made false statements to protect the police force or to ensure the success of a legal case against an accused.” Blue, the color of police uniforms, is a stand-in—a metonym—for “police.”
Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing, by Matt Stroud (2019). The title puns on “thin blue line,” the concept that the police keep society from descending into violent chaos. Popularized by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s, “thin blue line” was itself a variation on “The Thin Red Line,” a British regiment during the Crimean War. The Thin Blue Line is the title of a 1988 documentary by Errol Morris about the murder of a Texas police officer. The thin blue line flag has been displayed as a show of support for law enforcement “but also has come to signal opposition to the racial-justice movement.”