Famous Sayings: #98 — ‘White Lie’

January 27, 2018

I just told you a teensy weensy, little white lie. I didn’t mean any harm.

white lie, famous sayings
Original Image By Clipartqueen (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
I need to do a little catching up here, so this will be the first of two Famous Sayings posts in two days. Tomorrow’s post is big in terms of the amount of research involved, because it covers a lot of ground. So I’d thought I make things a little easier for myself by choosing a phrase that was much easier to do.

Now, most people understand what a white lie is, but do we know how the phrase came about? In my search, I came across a quick answer as to the origins of the phrase and I was able to learn some other things, as well. But let’s talk about the meaning anyway.

What Is a White Lie?

In short, a white lie is a benevolent one. White lies are supposed to be harmless and they are often told to avoid hurting people’s feelings. The opposite of a white lie is a black lie, but we often omit the adjective because we don’t normally specify that lies are inherently evil (Quinion).

I also got the impression that a white lie was a small one but Quinion made no mention of the size.

What Is the Origin of This Phrase?

According to Quinion, the phrase “white lie” may have come from the 18th century. In particular, the term could be found in a 1741 edition of The Gentlemen’s Magazine. I was able to find the passage Quinion cited via Google Books:

I am told that a certain Lady of the highest Quality next to Royalty, makes a judicious Distinction between a white Lie and a black Lie. A white Lie is That which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition and the Itch of amusing People by telling Them wonderful Stories …

When I looked up the word “white” on the Online Etymology Dictionary, the entry also said that the phrase “white lie” first turned up in 1781.

What Are Some Examples of White Lies?

In this first example, people tend to tell white lies when someone else asks them how they look”

“How do I look in these jeans? Do they make me look fat?”

“No, you look good, girl.”

In any example, someone who’s worried about their penmanship asks their peers for reassurance:

“Does my handwriting look decent?”

“Oh, yes, that looks soooo good.”

In this example, a child asks a parent about a piece of art:

“Mommy, what do you think of this drawing I made you?”

“Honey, this is wonderful! I think I’ll just hang this up on the refrigerator.”

Now, in that last example, the kid is most likely young, like 5-10 years old. In that case, the mother might not be telling a white lie at all and might be proud to see their child trying (and making improvements). In any case, it makes no sense to make fun of a child’s drawing.

Did You Know?

As Michael Quinion pointed out, how Western culture used white and black as polar opposites, with the former signifying good and the latter signifying something that was bad. That could be seen with the terms “white lie” vs. “black lie” and “white magic” versus “black magic.”

There was also something called a “white paternoster,” which referred to a prayer or charm people recited to protect against evil at night. An example is the children’s rhyme “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Bless the bed that I lie on”). A Black paternoster was recited to conjure evil spirits or devils.

(This discussion of color and what they mean is something I want to revisit.)

At American Culture Explained, the author shared some facts about the phrase “white lie” in other languages:

White lie in Spanish is mentira blanca.

In German, there is a word for “emergency lie,” which means pretty much the same thing. (Although it was not listed at the blog, a simple Google search brought up the word notlüge.)

Works Cited

Harper, Douglas. “white | Origin and meaning of the word white by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/word/white>.

Quinion, Michael. “White Lie.” World Wide Words. 18 July 2009. Web. Retrieved 27 Jan 2018. <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-whi6.htm>.

Urban, Sylvanus, Gent. “Of Lies White and Black.” The Gentlemen’s Magazine. Volume 11. 1791. Print (via Google Books). Page 647.Retrieved 27 Jan 2018.

“White Lie.” American Culture Explained. 8 Mar 2011. Weblog. Retrieved 27 January 2018. <https://americaexplained.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/white-lie/>.


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