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'Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!'


Parents and other adults are known to tell white lies to children. Some white lies -- such as lying about Santa Claus.

Parents and other adults are known to tell white lies to children. Some white lies -- such as lying about Santa Claus.


Hello and welcome to the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

"Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

Children all over the United States know this simple rhyme. They say it when someone gets caught in a lie. In other words, when someone gets busted for lying.

The word “lie” comes from Old English through even older German. A lie is an untruth. It is intentional and usually has consequences.

But not all lies are created equal.

People often use white lies to prevent hurting the feelings of others or to save themselves trouble. For example, let’s say you are eating dinner at your boss’s house and the food is really bad. When your boss asks you, “How do you like the meatloaf? It’s an old family recipe,” it is a good idea to say you love it.

White lie to the rescue!

Parents and other adults are known to tell white lies to children. Some white lies -- such as lying about Santa Claus -- are part of a tradition and are meant for fun.

Some white lies are to protect children. For example, when a child asks about a person who has died, adults may say the dead person is simply sleeping.

These lies are meant to help, not hurt. But they are still, technically, lies.

Even adults may sometime prefer to hear a lie than a truth that is too difficult to face. In the song “Tell Me Lies,” by the rock group Fleetwood Mac, a woman is asking for lies -- sweet little lies.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.
(Tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies)
Oh, no, no you can't disguise.
(You can't disguise, no you can't disguise)
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Another kind of relatively harmless lie is called a fib. It is a little, unimportant lie. Fibbers who fib are usually not out to hurt anyone.

Sometimes people simply make things up. Other times they stretch the truth, or exaggerate. In other words, they add details to the truth to make a story better.

Bending the truth is also not a severe lie. If you bend the truth, you take the truth and change it very slightly.

A half-truth is trickier. It could be like the name says – a statement that is half true and half false. Or it could be a statement that is completely true but shows only one part of the real story. Half-truths are meant to deceive or to avoid responsibility.

These examples are all clever, subtle ways of lying. They are the opposite of outright lies. These types of lies are direct. They are also called out-and-out, barefaced or bold-faced lies.

Many word experts agree that the original expression is "barefaced lie" and that it began in the 1600s. At that time, "bare" meant "bold." Also at that time in history, almost all men had facial hair. It was considered quite bold for a man to be clean-shaven, or barefaced.

Eventually, the word for “hairless” went from “bare” to “bald,” and so did the description for an obvious lie. So, these days you can use bold-faced, barefaced and even bald-faced to mean a lie that is obvious. They all mean that there is no mistake or making excuses. This person is lying!

Barefaced liars lie easily and often. They lie through their teeth, we like to say.

The group word for lies is pack. Someone who tells a pack of lies tells one lie after another.

There are packs of lies and there are webs of lies. This expression may have come from a line of Scottish poetry:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

To be tangled in a web of one’s own lies … is no place to be.

I’m Anna Matteo.

"You can't hide your lying eyes. And your smile is a thin disguise ..."

Any good lying idioms in your language? Do share in the Comments section and on our Facebook page.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor. The song that ends this piece is the Eagles singing "Lyin' Eyes."

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Words and Their Stories

intentional adj. done in a way that is planned or intended

consequence n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

deceive to make (someone) believe something that is not true : deception is the noun

clever adj. intelligent and able to learn things quickly

subtle adj. hard to notice or see : not obvious : clever and indirect : not showing your real purpose

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