What Does White Lie Mean?

Have you ever told a friend you liked their outfit when you really thought it wasn’t very flattering on them? Told a family member you enjoyed the meal they made when you actually thought it was bland and flavorless? Or told a spouse or partner you loved their new haircut when in reality you liked their hair better as it was before? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve told a white lie in your life. But before you get too upset by the idea of lying or thinking of yourself as a liar, let’s take a look at the meaning of this expression, as well as its origin. And, let’s briefly explore what philosophers say about the ethics of white lies.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What Does White Lie Mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, a white lie is “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” Other dictionaries, of course, define the term similarly: as a well-intentioned untruth; a lie thought to be trivial and justified or diplomatic; a minor falsehood about a minor matter; a lie told in order to be polite; a harmless lie told to protect someone’s feelings; and so on. In other words, white lies are lies told without malice, without any intent to harm someone. On the contrary, they’re meant to spare someone’s feelings, to maintain the social order or collective well-being, or even to make someone look or feel better than they do. They’re intended to achieve a good outcome. (Whether they do or not is up for debate; keep reading.)

Taking the example from above of telling your partner or spouse you love their new haircut when you really don’t, it’s clear this lie is meant to protect their feelings; after all, they have to walk around with the haircut until it grows out, and you don’t want them to feel worried about how they look in public or worried about how you think they look. It’s also meant to keep the peace between you both and keep the relationship happy and healthy. When compared with a bigger lie one might tell their spouse or partner, such as that they aren’t cheating on them with someone else when they actually are, we can see the white lie is well-intentioned and relatively harmless, and about a pretty minor matter. A white lie is still a lie—in that lying means to “make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “create a false or misleading impression,” but it is thought to be more innocent than other lies.

Because white lies are about small or trivial topics, you will often hear the expression as little white lie or little white lies.

The Etymology of the Term

Some language historians trace the phrase back to a letter said to be penned by Ralph Adderley and written to Sir Nicholas Bagnall. It read in part:

“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.”

The date of the letter has been cited as the 14th century as well as April of 1567.  

Merriam-Webster cites evidence of perhaps the earliest use of white lie as a 1516 letter from Thomas More, who wrote:

“Were I to lie with most solemn countenance, and swear I had replied to you as often, it is ten to one you would’nt believe me; especially as you know me so well, how idle I am in answering letters, and not so superstitiously veracious as to reckon every white lie as black as murder.”

Whatever the exact date the term first appeared in print, linguists do seem to agree that white came to be added to the word lie because the color, or rather absence of color, has for centuries been associated with purity and innocence (the reason brides wear a white wedding dress!). Indeed, entries in the dictionary today for white include “free from moral impurity: innocent” and even “not intended to cause harm,” as in white lie

This is in contrast to old-fashioned associations with the color black as sinister, wicked, and evil. Although you won’t find a dictionary definition for black lie today, there are often references to black lies, and there does appear to be some historical record of this expression as well, used to mean lies told with malicious intent or untruths told to purposefully harm or injure another person. For example, a 1741 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine stated:

  “A certain Lady of the highest Quality . . . made a judicious distinction between a white Lie and a black Lie. A white Lie is That which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation, but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition, and the Itch of amusing People by telling them wonderful Stories.” 

We can see the same historical associations of white with goodness and purity and black with darkness or evil in the terms white magic and black magic. These color associations likely stem from the idea of and contrast between day and night and light and dark.

Other colors have long held symbolic meanings as well. For example, red often symbolizes anger, while green can symbolize envy. 

This is to say that the use of white in white lie most likely originally had nothing to do with race. Nevertheless, there is much popular discussion about the appropriateness of using the phrase. And there are those who argue it brings up racial implications that make it worth avoiding.

White lie isn’t the only common phrase having to do with color. Learn what paint the town red means here.

Is It OK to Tell a White Lie?

Philosophers have long debated the ethics of lying, with the well-known names St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Immanual Kant all condemning it. Warnings around the telling of white lies seem to date back to the first use of the term, at least to the 1600s. In 1785, William Paley, writing in his work Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, cautioned: “White lies always introduce others of a darker complexion.”

Many ethics experts feel that telling white lies is a slippery slope, often creating the need to tell more lies, and that repeatedly telling white lies may make it easier for a person to lie more often and to tell larger, more detrimental lies in the future. Science appears to back this up, with studies showing that telling white lies desensitizes the part of the brain that makes a person feel uneasy when they lie.   

Some utilitarian philosophers have supported lies that help achieve positive outcomes, aka white lies. Rather than white lies and black lies, scientists often use the terms prosocial lies and antisocial lies. They note that prosocial lies are told for someone else’s benefit, while antisocial lies are told only for one’s own personal gain. And they point to a perhaps positive side of prosocial lies in that they uphold the idea of empathy and kindness—that other people’s feelings matter—saying that they can even, ironically, increase social bonds and trust.

Still, some experts note that there’s no need for white lies at all, and that it’s possible to be both truthful and respectful at the same time. For example, if you don’t like the food someone has made for you, you could simply tell them you really appreciate the effort they went to on your behalf.

Related Terms

Fib can be thought of as a synonym for white lie. A fib is defined as a “trivial or childish lie.” The term noble lie is also similar; it originated from Plato and describes an untruth intended to maintain social harmony or an orderly society, thereby potentially being beneficial to others. People often also use the term polite lie similarly. And there’s also the expression blue lie, which indicates a lie told supposedly to benefit the collective good.

Summary

The definition of white lie is a “small, trivial lie most often told to protect someone’s feelings and avoid hurting them.” The term appears to date back to at least the 1500s. Whether or not it’s okay and ethical to tell a white lie remains up for debate and up to an individual.

PS: Ever wondered the difference between grey and gray? Find out here.