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White lie

Q From Tom Michael: What is the origin of the phrase white lie?

A It’s based on the ancient Western idea of polar opposites, represented in popular culture through white meaning good and black its evil antithesis. We have white magic, for example, beneficent magic that’s opposed to the malign black variety. The term white paternoster meant a prayer or charm recited to protect against evil at night (of which one version that survives is the old children’s rhyme “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on”). The opposite was a black paternoster, a spell recited to conjure up evil spirits or devils.

Along the same lines, a white lie is one that lacks evil intent, as opposed to a black lie, which is most certainly malevolent, though normally we don’t bother to specify that lies are evil. A white lie is harmless or trivial, frequently one said in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. The term is first found in the eighteenth century, when it suggested something slightly different:

A certain Lady of the highest Quality ... 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.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1741.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Jul. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 July 2009.