Here’s Why We Call Them “White Lies”

People might argue about what counts as a "white lie," but where the phrase comes from is clear.

If you’ve left a date because of a “sick” not-so-sick relative, you’ve told a white lie. Telling a fib like this one to protect yourself and others sometimes make things easier, but often, telling lies like the most common lies men tell women, only makes things harder. Still, why are these called “white lies” in the first place?

What is a “white lie”

First, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “white lies” as, “lies about small or unimportant matters that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar definition saying, a “white lie” is, “a harmless or small lie, especially one that you tell to avoid hurting somebody.” So telling a date you need to leave because of an emergency, for example, avoids hurting their ego unlike telling them you simply don’t want to be on the date anymore. Other types of lies are more like scare tactics, including these lies people tell kids (that you probably still believe).

Why are these lies “white”

Although the word “lie” dates back to as early as 900, “white lies” is slightly newer. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the full word back to a 14th-century letter: “I do assure you he is vnsusspected of any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye) wiche is taken for a Small fawte in thes partes,” Columbia Journalism Review reports. “White” is in front of this word because of old associations with black and white colors. “White” connotes goodness or purity, while “black” implies evil or darkness because of day and night, according to Grammarist. The use of “white” has nothing to do with race. Another example of this is “black magic” and “white magic.”

Even though people tell “white lies” to avoid inflicting or receiving harm, there are surely people who argue that all lies are harmful. Drawing the line on what is a “white lie” is something that’s actually not necessarily so black and white. One clear thing, however, is that your history teacher lied about these “facts.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.