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Bald-faced, boldfaced or barefaced?

Q From Michael Benson: A friend of mine recently posed the question as to whether the proper form was bald-faced lie or boldfaced lie. Naturally, I thought of looking to your site for the answer, but having found none, I figure it’s the perfect opportunity to ask. Which is the proper phrase?

A This one confuses people a lot. To increase your own confusion, the original is actually neither of the two versions you quote, but is instead barefaced lie. The first example I’ve come across is this:

How dare you try to falsify my person? You are discovered in a barefaced lie, and now want to bully it out.

Life; or, The adventures of William Ramble Esq., by John Trusler, 1793.

This is still the usual form in Britain and to a lesser extent in Canada. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Americans started to use bald-faced lie instead, which has become the most common form in today’s US newspapers. An early example:

No one of ordinary intelligence is, of course, expected to believe the statement, and every one who is capable of putting it into readable English knows it to be a bald-faced lie.

The Newark Daily Advocate (Ohio), 12 Jul. 1883.

Both forms are based on colloquial uses from the seventeenth century. Someone bare-faced originally had the face uncovered, and hence was figuratively acting in an unconcealed or open way (Shakespeare is the first known user of both literal and figurative senses). From the latter part of the seventeenth century onwards, it took on a sense of something or someone who was audacious, shameless or impudent, so that a barefaced lie was one in which the speaker made no attempt to disguise it as truth.

An animal that is bald-faced has a white face or a white mark on the head. (Today bald refers to someone or something that lacks hair, but it’s a medieval extension on the basis that a bald pate looks whitish.) Examples of the white sense include bald coot (from the white flash on the forehead of this water bird, a phrase which was changed by a bit of folk etymology into the slang insult bald as a coot, totally bald); bald-faced stag (one likewise with a white flash on the head); and bald-faced cattle (Herefords, which have white faces). A bald mountain has a summit that’s either bare or covered in snow and a bald eagle has a white head. In the middle of the nineteenth century in America a bald-faced shirt was a dress shirt with a starched white front. It seems that bald-faced was common enough in the US compared with barefaced that it modified the expression.

The third version is your boldfaced lie. A story one sometimes hears in support of it falls firmly into the area of folk etymology — that it comes from a lie knowingly told in print because it was printed for emphasis in bold type. But bold-faced goes back to Shakespeare in the sense of a shameless or impudent appearance, so it’s reasonable that a boldfaced lie is one told with a shamelessly bold face. At times it’s regarded as an error, though it’s to be found almost as early as barefaced lie:

The sneer, the sarcasm, the one-sided statement, the perplexing reference, the qualified concession, the bold-faced lie, — all these we could well illustrate by samples of the current crop.

Eclectic Review, Sept. 1832.

Having gone around the houses, detailed the history of the three forms and delved into every aspect of the story, perhaps I ought to think of actually answering your question. But I don’t need to, since good advice has already been given:

When we call a lie baldfaced or boldfaced ... either one is just fine, though baldfaced is a bit more common. But we could save ourselves trouble by following the rest of the Anglophone world, which avoids the issue simply by using barefaced for most kinds of openly shocking behavior.

Jan Freeman, writing in the Boston Globe in June 2002.

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Page created 13 Jun 2009