White Lie – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you ever told someone that you love the gift they gave you, even though you didn’t? This is what you would call a “white lie”. Read on to discover the fascinating history of this phrase, and to learn how to use it in a sentence.

​​​Meaning

A “white lie”, also often called a “little white lie”, is a harmless lie told about an unimportant matter.

The dictionary definition of a white lie usually holds that such a lie is told to protect others’ feelings. Psychologists have, however, described four reasons to tell a white lie:

  • To be polite (to protect someone’s feelings).
  • To protect your own ego or social standing.
  • To avoid being insubordinate.
  • To maintain harmony in interpersonal relationships.

​​​Example Usage

You can speak of a white lie when you have, or someone else has, told a harmless lie about something inconsequential.

Examples of untruths that would typically be considered white lies include:

  • “Yes, I love your new dress!” (You really think it’s ugly — this lie is told to be polite.)
  • “We got divorced because we had grown apart.” (One of you cheated — this lie is told to protect social standing.)
  • “Working overtime is no problem for me at all. I wasn’t doing anything on Saturday.” (You really don’t want to work — this lie is told to avoid being insubordinate.)
  • “Of course I’d love to come to Bible study with you.” (You don’t — this lie is told to keep the peace.)

​​​Origin

The first recorded use of the phrase “white lie” dates back to the fourteenth century, when a letter writer used the phrase in the following context:

“I do assure you that he us unsuspected of any untruth or other notable crime, except a white lie.”

The Gentleman’s Magazine defined a white lie as one that “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” in 1741.

In this definition, “tall tales” (which embellish the truth) told to entertain others is included under the “white lie” umbrella.

Why is a harmless lie called white lie? Interestingly, the idea that the color white represents goodness or purity, while black represents darkness and evil, has historical roots in many different cultures. These include the Ancient Chinese culture as well as classical Western culture.

The idea likely arises from the contrast between day and night, and is called black-white dualism.

A white lie can, as such, be distinguished from a “black lie” (a phrase that never caught on), which might be told to do harm or con someone.

​Phrases Similar to White Lie

Instead of white lie, you could also say:

  • Harmless fib
  • Stretch the truth or bend the truth
  • A cock and bull story or a tall tale — an exaggerated story; think “the fish I caught was 60 meters long!”

Phrases Opposite to White Lie

Someone who refuses to tell white lies might be called “brutally honest”, “blunt” or described as having “no filter”. Such a person can also simply be called untactful.

​​What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct saying is “white lie” or “little white lie”. It means a harmless lie told about an unimportant topic.

​​​Ways People May Say White Lie Incorrectly

It is not uncommon for people to refer to lies that do have a harmful impact as “white lies”. This would not be correct. Ask yourself if the lie is truly innocuous before you call it a white lie.

​​​Acceptable Ways to Phrase White Lie

You can use the phrase “white lie” to describe an innocent lie told to be polite or avoid hurting someone’s feelings. These lies often involve telling someone that you love the outfit they are wearing, or you really enjoyed something they gave you.

We all tell white lies sometimes. Society wouldn’t function very well if we were all brutally honest all the time.

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