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The lying origins of ‘belie’

Q: I see usages like “His age belies his strength” when I think it should be “His strength belies his age.” But I’m a bit confused about this. What do you think?

A: The verb “belie” usually means to give a false impression (“His amiable smile belies his toughness”) or to prove false (“The fingerprints belie her claim to have been elsewhere”). All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include those two senses, though some add a slight variation or two.

So in answer to your question, one could say either “His strength belies [gives a false impression of] his age” or “His age belies [gives a false impression of] his strength.”

Of course “belie” can be misused. As Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) points out, it’s sometimes thought to mean disclose or reveal, “a sense almost antithetical” to giving a false impression. The usage guide gives this example of the misuse: a “soft drawl belied his Southern roots.”

As for its etymology, “belie” dates from Anglo-Saxon days, when it meant “to deceive (a person) by lying” or “to tell lies about, to slander or libel (a person),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the verb was written as beleogan, formed of the prefix be- (about) plus leogan (to lie or deceive). The earliest example in the OED, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century, uses belogene, the past participle:

“forþon þe we men syndon & beoþ ful oft belogene fram oþrum mannum” (“because we are men we are often belied [deceived] by other men”). From Bishop Wærferð of Worcester’s Old English translation of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written in Latin over the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

In early Middle English, the verb (written as biliȝhe, beleiȝe, bilye, etc.) meant “to tell lies about; esp. to slander or libel, to calumniate,” the OED says. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“Þe treowe is ofte mis trouwed & þe sakelese biloȝen … for wane of witnesse” (“the faithful are often mistrusted and the innocent belied [lied about] … for want of witness”). From Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), a guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts; the OED dates this one from the early 1200s or perhaps late 1100s.

In the 14th century, the expression “belie the truth” came to mean “misrepresent or pervert the truth,” as in this Oxford example: “Þei lede lordes with lesynges and bilyeth treuthe” (“they lead lords with lies and belie the truth”). From Piers Plowman (1378), by William Langland.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels all these early senses of “belie” as obsolete or rare.

Over the next few centuries, the lying sense of “belie” lessened and the verb took on its modern meanings of to give a false impression and to prove something false.

Here’s an early Oxford example of the false-impression sense: “It is a straunge thing how men bely themselues: euery one speakes well, and meanes naughtily” (from “Of Alehouses,” a 1600 essay by William Cornwallis, an English courtier and member of Parliament).

And this is an expanded OED example of the other sense, to prove something false: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and … cares not what Ladies fauor he belies” (from Ben Jonson’s description of Fastidius Briske, in the cast of characters of his satire Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600).

Finally, here are some modern examples from Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary:

“Her gentleness belies her strength.”

“His manner and appearance belie his age.”

“The evidence belies their claims of innocence.”

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