The Grammarphobia Blog

Kansas City, here I come

Q: I saw a story on the NPR website with this title: “Kansas City’s Wholesome Image Belies Mob Past.” I would have expected Kansas City’s mob past to belie its wholesome image, not the other way around. How can an image belie a reality? Have I got things backwards?

A: I checked out the NPR story. Who knew Kansas City had such a rich history of mob bosses and rubouts? But on to your question about “belie,” which means, among other things, to show something to be a lie or to give a false impression.

Other definitions include to picture falsely, to misrepresent, or to show to be false, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Additional references, including the Oxford English Dictionary, give even more meanings: to falsify, to disguise a person or thing so it appears other than it is, to deny the truth of, to contradict as a lie, or to run counter to.

So it would be correct, according to these definitions, to say either that Kansas City’s past belies its reputation (fact belies image) or that its reputation belies its past (image belies fact). I think many people use “belie” simply to mean to conceal or distort the truth, which is a legitimate usage.

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