The Grammarphobia Blog

A tissue of lies

Q: You were discussing the expression “a tissue of lies” on the radio some time ago. I think it may come from un tissu de mensonges, French for “a tissue of lies.” The noun tissu is the past passive participle of the archaic verb tistre, meaning to weave, according to my Harrap’s Shorter French and English Dictionary. Hence the French expression would indicate a number of lies closely woven together.

A: The word “tissue” (originally spelled “tyssu”) entered English in the mid-14th century. It’s derived from an Old French noun, tissu, meaning “a kind of rich stuff,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In English, a “tissue” originally meant a rich cloth often interwoven with gold and silver.

The first citation for the word in the OED is from The Romaunt of the Rose, an English translation (often attributed to Chaucer) of a French allegory: “The barres were of gold ful fyne, / Upon a tyssu of satyne.”

By the early 18th century, the word “tissue” was being used in a figurative way to mean a network or web of negative things. In 1711, for example, Joseph Addison dismissed some poems as “nothing else but a Tissue of Epigrams.”

In 1762, Oliver Goldsmith referred to the history of Europe as “a tissue of crimes, follies, and misfortunes.” And in 1820, Washington Irving complained about a “tissue of misrepresentations.”

I haven’t researched this usage in a French etymological dictionary, but nothing in the OED suggests that we got the negative use of “tissue” from France. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the French got the usage from us.

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