Exact Words: Real Life

  • President Ryti of Finland did this during World War II. He gave his word to Hitler that neither he nor Finland under his rule would ever make peace with the Soviet Union. When the time was ripe, Ryti retired and the next president pulled out of the war.
  • Hitler really should have seen that coming. In 1934, in a startling display of Genre Savvy, Hitler insisted the Wehrmacht swear an oath of loyalty to him personally — not to "the German people" or any other such locution that could allow his soldiers to rationalize betraying him (on the grounds that it was in the best interests of the German people to remove Hitler from power). Many of the top generals still considered getting rid of him, but it made the officers who attempted to do him in oathbreakers, which was a huge mental barrier to be overcome for many. On the other hand, it meant that once Hitler was disposed of, that would automatically solve the oath problem.
  • This is quite common among parts of the German public servants. As a Beamter, you enjoy a number of benefits — such as automatic promotion and the virtual impossibility of losing your job (anything under the equivalent of a one-year sentence in prison is a-okay) — but you lack the right to strike and your wages are state-set instead of negotiated. Therefore, if the public employees want to articulate their dissatisfaction, they engage in "Dienst nach Vorschrift" (service as ordered), doing exactly what the guidelines request, instead of what would be sensible, thereby deliberately wasting people's time.
    • This is a relatively common labour tactic known as "working to rule" — when an actual strike would be illegal or disadvantageous, the workers instead insist on following every picky little rule, greatly slowing down work while not actually doing anything they can be punished for.
  • The way a city showed submission to the ancient Persian empire was by giving symbolic gifts of "earth and water". According to Herodotus, Darius sent emissaries to Sparta demanding earth and water. The Spartans threw the emissaries down a well, saying, "You'll find plenty there." (Depicted, with bonus shouting, in 300.)
    • The Athenians took a similar tactic, and tossed their Persian emissary into a pit.
  • Although his political enemies and critics claimed Bill Clinton committed perjury in answering questions during a deposition, objective review of what he said shows that, legally, he did not. When it came to the question of whether he had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was being truthful in saying he did not, based on the definition of "sex" that had been previously agreed upon by the attorneys — which, upon careful reading, did not include fellatio performed on him, only oral sex if he performed it on someone else. Even the famous cigar incident didn't count because the definition didn't include him using an object on someone else.
    • When he was asked if he was having an affair with Lewinsky, he truthfully denied it. The phrasing of the question asked if anything sexual was going on, not if anything sexual had gone on in the past (the affair was over by then).
    • Clinton also exploited this trope when he famously claimed in his first presidential campaign (1992) that he "experimented with marijuana" a few times while in England, "didn't inhale," and never tried inhaling again. However, everyone who knew him as a young man distinctly remembers him as a bit of a stoner. Christopher Hitchens, who was with him at Oxford, has an explanation for that—Bill preferred edibles. Bill Hicks independently came to the same conclusion:
    '"I tried marijuana, but I did not inhale." What does that mean? ...Brownies! Look at his waistline!'
  • When Plato gave Socrates' definition of man as "featherless bipeds" and was much praised for the definition, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into Plato's Academy, saying, "Behold! I've brought you a man." After this incident, "with broad flat nails" was added to Plato's definition.
  • Richard J. Gatling, inventor of the Gatling gun, was a pacifist who wanted to prevent war by "reducing the size of armies." Well, his invention (and its spiritual descendants) have certainly done that.
  • George Spencer of New Haven, Connecticut, was put on trial for bestiality in 1642, and told that a confession would earn him mercy. Spencer eventually decided to confess in order to be spared punishment, only to be told that "mercy will be offered by God, not by the court." He was hanged.
  • This is how Mila Kunis got on That '70s Show: those auditioning for the role of Jackie had to be at least 18. She was 14. Kunis claimed she'd be 18 on her birthday; she just never said how far off that birthday was. By the time the producers finally figured out her age, it was known among them that Kunis was a superior, if not perfect, fit for the role she had auditioned for.
  • This trope is the reason why the Japanese have the JSDF despite renouncing war and giving up on its military. Article 9 of their constitution stated they can't maintain a military for war purposes. However, it never said anything about maintaining an armed force for self-defense purposes.
  • During The American Civil War, some recruits often tried to join while underage. They went in with a piece of paper in their shoes with the number "18" on it, then when questioned said "I'm over 18."
  • British politician Simon Hughes, when asked if he was gay replied: "The answer is no, as it happens, but if it were the case, which it isn't, I hope that it would not be an issue." When he then later came out as bisexual, he lampshaded this trope by apologising and saying: "I gave a reply that wasn't untrue but was clearly misleading. I apologise."
  • To gain the support of the council that decided who ruled Jerusalem, Sibylla of Jerusalem agreed to annul her marriage to the unpopular Guy of Lusignan, on the condition she chose her next husband. The council agreed, and she was crowned. Then she chose to remarry Guy and crown him king consort.
  • Under orders to make an exact copy of a captured B-29, designer Andrei Tupolev faced a serious problem: If he used the U.S. insignia, it could be seen as rebellious. If he used Russian insignia, he would be slighting Stalin by not following his orders. He was able to breach this problem in the form of a joke letter, and Stalin gave his approval for Russian insignia.
    • But in other cases, the "exact" wording applied. That particular B-29, due to a manufacturing error, had a few extra, obviously unnecessary rivet holes (that didn't have rivets). They appeared in the copies. Similarly, because the plane was American, Imperial measurements were used in the sizing of parts, but the USSR used metric. Even though using similar-sized standard metric parts which were almost exactly the same size (such as the aforementioned rivets) wouldn't have made a difference, all the parts were machined to be exact duplicates of the American originals.
      • Tupolev did, indeed, replicate many trivial details, in large part so that the spies on his team would report his obedience to Stalin. He also suggested many improvements that were approved by the bureaucracy and incorporated into production Tu-4s.
  • According to legend, this is why the first in line for the British crown is traditionally titled the Prince of Wales. In 1301, King Edward I of England supposedly promised the Welsh that he would have someone "a prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English" as Prince of Wales. He then produced his own infant son Edward II, who was indeed born in Wales (in Caernarfon while Edward I was campaigning in Wales) and did not speak a word of English (or any other language). As the English aristocracy at the time often spoke Norman French instead of English (indeed, Edward I was the first king since 1066 who actually spoke English fluently, and it wouldn't be until the reign of his great-great grandson Henry IV that the King would be a native English speaker), other versions of the legend had Edward I promise a prince that didn't speak either English or French, and one version had him say "born on Welsh soil and speaking no other language." The first story certainly isn't true, since Edward II was born in 1284.
  • While negotiating the surrender of a group of temples that had rebelled against him, the Japanese warlord and future Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu promised the monks that after they surrendered their temples would be "as they were before." Once the peace was settled, he razed them all, noting that the temples had all once been vacant fields.
  • In 2005, the owner of Major League Baseball's Anaheim Angels decided that he wanted to rename the team to the Los Angeles Angels, in an effort to appeal to the larger Los Angeles media market. Makes sense, and it wouldn't be the first time Los Angeles had a pro sports team that was actually located in nearby Anaheim. The problem is, the team's 33-year lease contract for their stadium, owned by the city of Anaheim, stipulated that the team's name must include "Anaheim". Thus, they renamed the team to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as that name includes Anaheim. The city of Anaheim sued to force the team to revert to the previous name. They lost, and the Overly Long Name remains in place to this day. The team's owner correctly presumed that most fans and media would end up dropping the "of Anaheim" in common usage.
  • A UN officer in Bosnia was specifically ordered not to fire lethal weapons at anyone who was not firing at him. There happened to be a visible observation post calling in a long-range bombardment on his position. Since the observer wasn't doing any shooting, he had to grin and bear it — until nightfall, when he launched a phosphorus illumination shell which just happened to float down into the observation post.
  • When Harriet Tubman went to visit her still-enslaved parents, so one story goes, they refused to look at her. So if anyone ever asked them if they had seen their daughter, they could say "no" with complete honesty. This was supposedly averted when she finally came to rescue them.
  • Justice in an oppressive state (i.e. everywhere) loves this trope. Two European examples should suffice: a) In Germany, the use of Third Reich symbolism is illegal. (There are natural exemptions for science etc.) Probably less Neo-Nazis have been convicted on grounds of this law than left-wingers iconizing Swastikas being thrown into the waste-basket, Swastikas being blown up, Swastikas being striked through...you get the meaning, any little child gets the meaning, but tell that to the Judge... b) Some people practising bestiality in England have been convicted for rape — as the animal was less than 16 years old. (Cf. "buggery" in The Other Wiki - NSFW warning.)
    • Probably apocryphal, but they say a lawyer who had to prosecute a sodomy case where the evidence was very weak mused about reducing the charge to "following too closely."
    • Averted: Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul tells the story of a clever lawyer making a very subtle argument turning on Exact Words before the Supreme Court of Canada. He was in full tilt when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin abruptly leaned forward and asked whether his argument also worked in French, which of course it had to since the law is equally valid in both official languages. The lawyer was completely dumbfounded.
  • An innocent example: this story about an autistic child who wrote spelling words, as instructed, in exact alphabetical order.
  • Bill Cosby made the film Leonard Part Six, which he quickly grew to consider a disaster. But the studio had him under contract to promote it. The contract didn't tell him what to say during the promotional spots, though, so he made the tour... and derided the film on each appearance, telling viewers to avoid it.
  • Pat Arrowsmith, a self-confessed lesbian, was left an inheritance by her father, on condition that she get married. So she married a friend who was sympathetic to her plight; the will didn't say anything about the marriage being consummated.
  • Michael Rasmussen, former professional cyclist from Denmark, who got kicked out of Tour de France in 2007 while leading the race, never actually said he was clean. He'd always say when asked about doping that he had never tested positive, which was true.
  • A reported example was a girl who went out on a date but was told she had to be home before midnight. Her and her boyfriend are out and about until 2, which would have been a disaster if it was discovered. So she decides to wait one hour and walk in the door at precisely 3 am. The next morning when her father asked her what time she got in, she said, "I watched the clock very carefully, and I walked in at exactly a quarter of twelve. (Which it is if you divide 12 by 4, you get 3.)
  • A flagman back when railroad crossings did not have lights testified in court that at the night crossing where the train was crossing the road in near pitch black conditions, "I was waving my lantern from side to side when the car crashed into the train." This was true, however he did not, at the time, mention that the lantern wasn't lit.
  • Foie gras, a French food made from the swollen liver of a fattened goose, is considered a delicacy and appears in the culture's haute cuisine. However, it is created by force-feeding geese and, in some cases, limiting their mobility so they can do nothing but eat, practices which have earned the ire of many animal rights activists. Eventually, the activists were able to ban the sale of foie gras in several French restaurants...but savvy restaurant owners realized that while they were forbidden to charge for foie gras, there was no rule against their serving it. Thus, several restaurants started offering eighteen-dollar glasses of water that came with a helping of "complimentary" foie gras.
  • The US Congress and government in general receive a lot of mockery for the size of bills and regulations. It's easy to make fun of a proposed law by pointing out that it's longer than Stephen King's most ambitious novels. But interests affected by these laws and regulations have very good lawyers who are quite skilled at finding every possible loophole. As a result, a major piece of legislation must be crafted with extraordinary care, with all terms defined at great length, to ensure the legislative intent is crystal clear and unimpeachable.
    • The Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare," aka "Health Care Reform") is an example of why careful legislative crafting is so crucial. Opponents of the law have challenged elements of it on the grounds that the law sets up health insurance marketplaces: established by the states, ideally, but by the federal government if the state opts out. The law also provides tax subsidies for those too poor to afford the full price of health insurance on the exchange. However, opponents point out that one section mentions that customers are eligible for subsidies that can be used "on exchanges established by the state," which, they say, means that customers using exchanges established by the federal government are ineligible for the subsidies. For various complicated policy reasons, this would cripple the law. The law's drafters argue that this is a ridiculous, nitpicky interpretation that ignores the rest of the bill and the stated intentions of just about everyone involved with the crafting of the law.