Duplicitous is a word with an appropriately tricky origin. It was originally a legal term for including two pleas in one, which is a no-no. Much like that origin, many terms for the Iago-like and Loki-ish have been lost in the mists of time (or maybe stolen by some rat-brained, two-hearted turncoat). Consider reviving these words the next time you encounter anyone twistical.
The word ambidextrous is usually a compliment, or at least a neutral description of an impressive talent: being equally skilled with both hands. Maybe because the left hand has often been considered disreputable or even satanic, the word for this ability took a turn. Laurence Sterne’s A Political Romance, published in 1759, gives this word some slimy ilk, describing “a little, dirty, pimping, pettifogging, ambidextrous fellow.”
This term, around since the early 1800s, can be literal or figurative. A winding road can be called twistical, but so can a lying scumbag. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition is deadpan and wonderful: “… not straight or plain in character; morally or mentally tortuous.” An example from David Humphreys’s 1815 book The Yankey in England describes a common problem in sketchy men: “In his dealings with t'other sex, he is a leetle twistical.”
3., 4., 5., and 6. Two-Hearted, Double-Hearted, Two Hearts and Double Heart
Two-faced is a common term for the untrustworthy (and the inspiration for a Batman villain), and the number two is part of many similar terms. An OED example from a piece of religious literature dating to 1649 goes on a guitar solo of dualities: “Unlesse we have two faces, two tongues, two understandings, two judgements, two consciences, two hearts, two pair of hands, two pair of leggs, two purses, which every honest man hath not, we cannot see how it may be done.”
This term is usually literal, describing trains, snakes, and monsters with two noggins. But it’s sometimes been part of the lexicon of duplicity, much like double-hearted.
8. As Many Faces as a Churchyard Clock
The wonderful Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) records this expression, which ups the ante from two-centric terms for the untrustworthy, suggesting that a rogue or rascal has, like a church clock, no less than four faces. It was recorded in a 1925 collection of sailor slang as a word for “an unreliable man.”
This word for describing anything duplicitous stems from the many sketchy meanings of gammon. Gammon and patter is criminal cant or slang. Gammon and spinach is horsefeathers. Various other meanings involve tricking, wheedling, or seducing someone, so if someone’s being twistical, they’re gammonacious.
10., 11., and 12. Twi-Faced, Twifold, and Double
Many meanings of twifold simply refer to things that are two-pronged but basically innocent. Other senses refer to double-dealing diabolical denizens of Deceit-ville. Since the 1300s, double all on its own has had more than a numerical meaning, conveying two-facedness and base treachery. In 1715, Gilbert Burnet’s History of His Own Time described a dude who was “very double, or very inconstant.” In 1866’s Felix Holt, the Radical, George Elliot wrote about a tricky situation: “To act with doubleness towards a man whose own conduct was double.” This kind of meaning informs double agent.
With roots in Old German and Old Norse, swikel one of the least familiar words for the ever-familiar topic of duplicity. You don’t hear about swikel words, deeds, and creeps anymore, which is too bad. There was a real ring to variations such as swikelness and swikeldom.
Rats are among the least trusted animals, along with the stool pigeon and guttersnake. Since the first half of the 1900s, rat-brained has been a term for the sneaky and prevaricating, as seen in an example from William F. Fowler’s The Battle of 1933, published the following year: “The rat brained, snake-eyed rascals who conceal their rascality under the dignified expression ‘financial genius.’”
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.