The Meaning of Save Face: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered what the definition of save face is? This guide will provide you with all of the info you need on the term save face, including its meaning, origin, usage, synonyms, antonyms, example sentences, and more!

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What does the term save face mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary, the idiom save face is a phrasal verb that means to preserve one’s reputation or to avoid having others lose respect for oneself. This phrase is often used to describe people who are trying and sometimes failing to preserve their own reputation. If a politician has a cheating scandal come out, he might try to save face by making a speech, but it could be to no avail. Related phrases include saving face and saved face. This phrase is the opposite of the phrase lose face, which means to have one’s reputation tarnished or lost.

The phrase save face is also used in many other languages to mean to preserve appearances, according to Word Sense. Below is a list of different translations of the phrase save face into numerous other languages.

  • Japanese: 顔を立てる‎ (かおをたてる, kao o tateru), 面目を保つ‎ (めんぼくをたもつ, menboku o tamotsu)
  • German: das Gesicht wahren‎
  • French: sauver la face‎
  • Polish: zachować twarz‎ (pf)
  • Swedish: rädda ansiktet‎
  • Arabic: حَفِظَ مَاءَ الوَجْهِ‎
  • Finnish: pelastaa kasvonsa‎
  • Mandarin: 挽回面子‎ (wǎnhuí miànzi)
  • Russian: сохрани́ть лицо́‎ (pf)
  • Persian: آبروداری کردن‎ (âb(e)ru-dâri kardan)
  • Estonian: au päästma‎

What is the etymology of the term save face?

According to Phrases, the term save face stemmed from the term lose face and first appeared in the June 1899 edition of The Harmsworth Magazine. The first time it was used, the term was written as “save my face.” This phrase has been used since the late 1800s to mean to preserve outward appearances.

The term lose face, sometimes seen as losing face,  came into the English vernacular as a translation of a Chinese phrase tiu lien. Translated, that phrase means to suffer public disgrace. This phrase stems from the idea that the person is so ashamed that they cannot show their face in public. The person has lost the respect of others, and potentially their own self-respect, and the side-effects of which are that they cannot show their face. They have figuratively lost their face.

This term was also first used in the late 1800s. Sir Robert Hart published a series of essays om 1876 called These from Land of Sinim – Essays on the Chinese in 1876 which includes the following quote:

“The country [China] begins to feel that Government consented to arrangements by which China has lost face; the officials have long been conscious that they are becoming ridiculous in the eyes of the people.”

This is the first known usage of the term lose face. Lose face and save face have become very popular terms in English and one will commonly see them used to express the wish to preserve appearances to the general public.

What are synonyms for the term save face?

There are a few different words and phrases that mean the same thing as the term save face. These are called synonyms. It is useful to know a few synonyms for words and phrases not only to try and expand your vocabulary, but to avoid repeating yourself. This list of synonyms is from MacMillan Thesaurus.

  • Live with yourself
  • Preserve one’s dignity
  • Keep up appearances
  • Make​ no apologies
  • Salve your conscience
  • Save one’s reputation
  • Look good
  • Offer no apologies
  • Preserve one’s honor

There are also numerous different words that are opposites of the phrase save face. These are called antonyms. Antonyms are useful to know if you tend to try and negate words instead of using words that are the opposite of them. This can eliminate wordiness and expand your vocabulary at the same time! This list of antonyms is also from Thesaurus.

  • Lose face
  • Have egg on one’s face
  • Give in
  • Suffer disgrace
  • Stultify oneself

How can the term save face be used in a sentence?

The phrase save face can be used in numerous different contexts to mean an attempt to preserve one’s reputation or appearance. In this example, Jordan was caught stealing money from the school fundraiser. He talks to his mom about what to do.

Jordan: I don’t know what to do. I mean, I could say the money was planted there. I could say someone else took it and I found it but I didn’t know who it belonged to.

Jordan’s Mom: Jordan, I know you’re just trying to save face. The best thing you can do is own up to your mistakes. Come clean and promise to do better next time. Otherwise, this lie will eat you alive inside.

Jordan: But everyone’s going to be mad at me. Everyone’s going to hate me.

Jordan’s Mom: First of all, that isn’t true. Everyone makes mistakes. Second of all, they will hate you more if you lie and steal. Fess up and learn. 

Here, Jordan’s mom tells him she can tell he is trying to preserve his reputation by using the phrase save face. In this next example, Jordan’s mom got reprimanded at work for errors on her reports, which caused a domino effect of problems. Her coworker asks her a question.

Coworker: Hey! What are you doing here late?

Jordan’s Mom: Ugh, just trying to save face by working late. I messed up big time.

Overall, the term save face means to preserve one’s appearances or reputation. This phrase is often used to describe people who are attempting to salvage a deteriorating reputation. This phrase is born out of the phrase lose face, which has its origins from a Chinese phrase.