What Does White Lie Mean?

White Lies Meaning

Definition: A small, harmless, and insignificant lie, especially one told out of politeness or to spare one’s feelings.

Origin of White Lie

This expression originated in the 1700s. In this expression, the word white signifies pure. In Western culture, it is common for white to symbolize purity. Other colors have other symbolic meanings as well. For example, red can show anger, green can show envy, and black can show evil.

Typically, people tell white lies in order to be polite, or in order to spare someone’s feelings.

For example, if a friend asks for an opinion on something he or she loves, or something he or she has worked hard on, and you hate it, it could easily hurt your friend’s feelings to tell the truth.

white lie definitionMany people consider white lies to be harmless. In fact, research shows that most people lie around three times within 10 minutes of meeting someone new. Many people consider white lies to be a social lubricant while other people are against lying in all forms.

Around the time the term was first coined, an issue of Gentleman’s Magazine sought to clarify a white lie from a black lie.

  • 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 inure and 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.

Others have warned that white lies inevitably introduce darker shades.

Examples of White Lie

what is a white lies mean

The dialogue below shows two women preparing for an important meeting.

Mila: What do you think of these shoes? I bought them especially for this meeting because I thought they were so cool! I spent way too much money on them, and they’re completely non-refundable, so I hope you like them.

Betty: Oh, I think they’re great! They’re super cute.

Mila: I’m glad you love them! Put them on now.

Betty: Wait. What? Aren’t those shoes for you?

Mila: No, silly. I bought them for you.

Betty: Oh, I’m so sorry. I have to confess. I thought they were for you, so I told you a white lie. I don’t really like the shoes. I just didn’t want to hurt your feelings. However, now that you want me to wear these to the meeting, I can’t keep up the lie any longer. I absolutely can’t wear those. They are hideous and I would look like a clown.

Mila: Ouch! I think I preferred it when you were lying to me.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about Israeli-Palestine conflict.

  • There is, of course, the “little white lie.” When someone we’ve been avoiding phones, who among us hasn’t whispered to a wife or husband: “Just tell him I’m not here.” But be they big or little, unanswered lies have a long afterlife. –Chicago Tribune

The second excerpt is about the son of a man with Alzheimers. The son lies to the father to make the father more comfortable.

  • Sean McCarty says he can come up with a white lie in an instant, a special talent that makes taking care of his father a lot easier. –OC Register

Summary

The idiom white lie means an untruth about a minor matter. People usually tell white lies to be friendly.