The Grammarphobia Blog

Lie detection

Q: I was just wondering: Is a lie “bold-faced” or “bald-faced”?

A: They’re both correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), but they may have slightly different meanings.

The expression “bold-faced lie” (given as an example in the dictionary’s entry for “bold-faced”) suggests a brazen lie while “bald-faced lie” (an example in the “bald-faced” entry) suggests an undisguised one.

However, the definitions for “bold-faced” and “bald-faced” in American Heritage indicate that the two phrases overlap somewhat. The “bald-faced” entry, for example, is defined as brash as well as undisguised.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) makes a bit more of a distinction between the two phrases.

M-W defines “bold-faced” as impudent, and “bald-faced” as barefaced. (The term “barefaced” is this context is defined as unscrupulous.) And Merriam-Webster’s only example involving lying is in its “bald-faced” entry.

In spite of these dictionary distinctions, a bit of googling suggests that lots of people use “bold-faced lie” and “bald-faced lie” interchangeably to refer to either a brazen or an undisguised lie.

Of the two, “bold-faced lie” is by far the more popular, with nearly 1.6 million hits on Google compared with only 39,000 for “bald-faced lie.”

A version of the expression especially popular in Britain, “barefaced lie,” gets 452,000 hits, with another 413,000 for two-word or hyphenated versions.

The terms “bold-faced” and “barefaced” (minus the word “lie”) date back to Shakespeare, according to citations in the OED.

“Bold-faced,” in the sense of impudent, first appeared in Henry VI, Part 1 (1591): “It warm’d thy father’s heart with prowd desire / Of bold-fac’t Victorie.”  

“Barefaced,” meaning undisguised, first showed up in Macbeth (1605): “And though I could / With bare-fac’d power sweepe him from my sight.”

Although many people seem to believe that “barefaced lie” is the source of both the “bald” and “bold” versions, it appears that “bold-faced lie” is by far the oldest, dating back to at least the early 1600s.

In a search of the Early English Books Online database, we found this example from a 1607 anti-Papist poem by Robert Picket: “Who so beleeues this Popish bold facest lie, / That’s grounded on, suppos’d admired Grasse, / May fatly feed, his follies foolerie: / Yet liue indeed, a very leane fed Asse.”

We couldn’t find any examples of “barefaced lie” until the late 18th century. One of the earliest (found in the Early American Imprints database) is from a 1798 religious tract by John Fowler.

In the work, Fowler questions whether “watchmen would report a barefaced lie that would have criminated themselves” about the disappearance of Jesus’ body.

The real newbie here, “bald-faced lie,” apparently didn’t show up until the mid-19th century.

The earliest citation we found comes from a headline in an Iowa newspaper, the Sept. 12, 1860, issue of the Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle: “Another ‘Bald-Faced’ Lie Nailed to the Counter.”  

To recap, it’s OK to use either “bold-faced lie,” “bald-faced lie,” or “barefaced lie.” But “bold-faced lie” is the most popular, and a lot of people would scratch their heads over “bald-faced lie.”

If you want to be understood – and that’s the primary goal of good English – then it would be safer to go with “bold-faced lie” or “barefaced lie.”

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