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Which of these is correct? What is the origin of this expression? I've searched here on the exchange and haven't found an answer.

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  • I've never heard "bald-faced lie" before. I'm fairly certain it's "bold-faced", to indicate one's boldness in daring to say such a lie.
    – Zibbobz
    Nov 13, 2013 at 21:23
  • @Zibbobz I don't suppose the inference put up by you is correct. The expression under discussion above indicates not the boldness in the act lying but instead the shallowness of the lie itself. Bald-faced means clear/neat. Hence when one says- "That's a bald-faced lie!", he/she intends to mean that the statement made is, without any doubt, a lie.
    – ikartik90
    Mar 29, 2014 at 19:13
  • 1
    Note that in a lot of English-speaking places, "bald" and "bold" are pronounced similarly (Southern American Midland comes to mind). For expressions that are commonly heard but not commonly read, its not unusual for some folks to learn to use the expression without actually knowing which words they are using.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 30, 2014 at 0:56
  • All this time, all this discussion, and no one has used the term eggcorn so far. Sep 30, 2020 at 23:18
  • @JohnLawler - Now, that's just cracked!
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 1, 2020 at 0:16

8 Answers 8

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The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) has this entry for "barefaced liar":

Barefaced, "beardless, with no hair upon the face" may have been coined by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where it is first recorded. Within a half a century or so it came to mean bold, audacious, impudent, or shameless, like many boys, who were barefaced. By 1825 we find "the barefacedness of the lie" recorded, and Harriet Beecher Stowe writes of a barefaced lie in Uncle Tom's Cabin [in 1852].

To similar effect is the entry for "bare-faced lie" in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

A shameless falsehood....The adjective barefaced means "beardless," and one theory is that in the 1500s this condition was considered brazen in all but the youngest males. By the late 1600s barefaced also meant "brazen" or "bold," the meaning alluded to in this phrase.

But "barefaced lie" goes back much farther than 1825. Here is an excerpt from The History of King-killers: Or, the 30th of January Commemorated (1719):

Prynne with his usual Impudence, and without any Regard to Truth, in his Book entitl'd Canterbury's Doom, &c, falsly writes, that Burton was brought into the Star-Chamber, and there censur'd for the aforesaid Sermon and nothing else. Such a barefac'd Lie at a Time when that Affair was so fresh, would have deterr'd any Man that made the least Pretence to Modesty from publishing of it ; but Prynne was of the Mind of the late no less famous Ferguson, who being about to publish in Print a most notorious Falshood,was told by a great Man, whom it most concern'd to have the same believ'd, that it was inpossible to impose such a Piece of Forgery upon any Men of Sense, Do you publish it, reply'd Ferguson, and tho' never so absurd, Fools will believe, and the Wier seem to believe it.

And here are the opening lines of a "On Hearing of His Royal Highness's Visit to Mr. Pope at Twickenham," in The Gentleman's Magazine (October 1735):

Yield, envoy yield; nor longer vainly try/The tim'rous whisper, or the barefac'd lie;/Greatness, superior to thy arts, can view/Its kindred virtues, and admire 'em too.

Other early appearances of the phrase appear in Edward Lewis, "Oxford Honesty: or, A Case of Conscience,"strong text third edition (1751); in William Romaine, Twelve Discourses upon Some Practical Parts of Solomon's Song, second edition (1759); and in John Trusler, Life, or the Adventures of William Ramble (1793). Numerous instances appear from 1796 forward.

The earliest association of "bold-faced" and "lie" that I've been able to find in a search of Google Books is this item from Richard Baxter, "The Catechising of Families" (1682/1707):

He that by Equivocation useth unapt and unsuitable Expressions, to deceive him that will misunderstand them, is to be blam'd: But he that will stand openly Bold-faced in a Lye, much more.

However, boldfacedas a pejprtive adjecyived goes back to the very early seventeenth century. From a 1604 translation of Jean Chassanion, Traité de la marchandise des prestres. The Merchandises of Popish Priests](https://books.google.com/books?id=h6mA0ovYjbUC&pg=PP40&dq=%22boldfaced%22&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi--af-95HsAhWYqZ4KHRz_C-gQ6AEwAHoECAAQAg#v=onepage&q=%22boldfaced%22&f=false):

Oh wickednes, oh bold faced impudence, able to ouerreach and beguile very wise iudgements.

Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1890) reports that "bald-faced" meant "having white on the face," and led to two contemporaneous slang terms: "bald-faced shirt," meaning (in cowboy lingo) a white shirt; and "bald-faced stag," meaning a bald-headed man.

One of the earliest metaphorical uses of "bald-faced" is in conjunction not with lying but with impudence. Thus, from Register of Debates in Congress (April 28, 1836), we have this fragment from a speech by a Mr. Moore of New York:

And yet, in the teeth of all these facts, in contradiction to all experience, and in defiance of the concurrent testimony of history, our modern aristocracy have the presumption, nay, the bald-faced impudence, to allege that the people have ever a propension to sedition and plunder.

Similar instances of "bald-faced impudence" occur in Punch, volume 17 (1849) and in The Medical Age (January 25, 1895).

Gilbert A. A'Beckett, The Comic History of England (1847) brings "bald-faced" (in the strict sense of "white-faced") and "bare-faced" into close proximity, in this sentence:

The extraordinary hilarity of the bounding hart attracted the attention of Rufus, who drew his bow, but the string broke, and Rufus not having two strings to his bow, called out to Tyrrel to shoot at the bald-faced brute for his bare-faced impudence.

Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) has entries that cite "barefaced lie" and "bald-faced lie"—but not "bold-faced lie"—as current slang.

My guess is that all three expressions are tangled up historically in various forms of bare-, bald-, and bold-faced behavior, all entailing the same general notion of audacity, impudence, and shamelessness. Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that variants of all three words are linked to the words lie and liar.


Another Meaning of "Bald-Face"

Maximillian Schele De Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872) offers this entry in a chapter on "Cant and Slang":

Bald-face, one of the many slang terms under which bad whiskey passes in the West.

Likewise, John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, Second Edition (1859):

BALD FACE. Common (penny) whiskey, particularly when it is new; also figuratively and appropriately called Red Eye.

A "bald-face lie" might thus be a lie that someone tells under the influence of bad whiskey; it is far more likely, however, that the drink-related term is unrelated to lying and refers simply to the immediate effect of the liquor on the face of the imbiber.


Update (September 30, 2020): Earlier instances of 'barefaced lie'

A search of the Early English Books Online database—which covers the period from 1475 to 1700—turns up several matches for "barefaced [or barefac'd] lie [or lye]." The earliest of these is from Daniel Whitby, Aonoz Tez Kisteōz, or, An Endeavour to Evince the Certainty of Christian Faith in Generall and of the Resurrection of Christ in Particular (1671), where the expression appears in two distinct places:

I say impossible it is, that men declaring that these things were acted and experimented, in the places where those persons lived who embraced this Doctrine, and for whom those Gospels were indited which contained, these things, should by such Gross untruths prevaile upon these persons, to embrace that story, which told these Barefaced lyes, for a divine unerring History, fit to be sealed with their Blood. ...

...

Prolegomena, in order to the demonstration of the Resurrection of our Lord. 1. That the Apostles did presently attest the thing. 2. That this attestation could not be a barefaced and notorious lye. ...

From "A Clear Discovery of the Malicious Falsehoods Contained in a Paper Printed at London, Intituled, A True Relation of What Is Discovered Concerning the Murther of the Archbp of St. Andrews'" (1679):

It shall be unnecessary to say any more of the other manifest and barefaced lies contained in the foresaid Paper, such as that the murderers hurt none of his servants, except the Postilion; whereas the best armed of his servants was wounded in the head by a sword, and his Daughter, besides the wound of her Thumb, had another in her Thigh; and that they dragged him out of his Coach, whereas indeed he very composedly opened the door of the Coach himself, and with meekness and resolution stept out, and went forward to the murderers, who were, with so Grave and Reverend a Presence and Resolution, so much stunn'd and amazed, that they looked upon one another, and stood a little while like men confounded, and unresolved what to do: ...

From John Dryden, The Vindication, or, The Parallel of the French Holy-League and the English League and Covenant Turn'd into a Seditious Libell Against the King and His Royal Highness by Thomas Hunt and the Authors of the Reflections upon the Pretended Parallel in the Play called 'The Duke of Guise' (1683):

Fat Falstaffe was never set harder by the Prince for a Reason, when he answer'd, that that if Reasons grew as thick as Black-berries, he wou'd not give one. Well, after long pumping, lest the lie shou'd appear quite barefac'd, they have found, I said, that at King Henry's Birth, there shone a Regal Star: so there did at King Charles the seconds: therefore I have made a Parallel betwixt Henry the third, and Charles the second. A very concluding Sillogism, if I shou'd answer it no farther.

And from John Turner, "A Second Representation of the Hospitaller of St. Thomas Southwark's Case in an Humble Address to the Right Honourable Sir Thomas Pilkinton, Lord Mayor of the City of London" (1689):

I never heard any thing urged to palliate so gross and palpable a falshood, but that the consideration was not given him by the same Persons that ejected him from hence, and therefore they conclude and argue like themselves, who understand neither Premisses nor Conclusions as they ought to do, that one was not given him in lieu of the other: but those Gentlemen know best upon what motive they did it, and to them I make my humble, but yet confident Appeal, which Mr. Hughes with all his impudence dare not do, and I do really resent the injury, and affront which is done to the City and the Court of Aldermen by such a barefac'd Lye, insinuated with all the seeming sincerity and address, which is only natural to truth, and very ill becomes that Falshood and disguise, which incapable of a modest and just asseveration, needs a meretricious and feigned one to support it.

EEBO searches for 'boldfaced lie' (in various forms) turned up no matches.

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A bald-faced lie is one that is:-

easy to see and understand as being bad

showing no guilt or shame : not hiding bad behavior

The same source lists bold-faced as

displaying or marked by rude boldness: the child proceeded to tell a bold-faced lie despite the evidence right in front of us

There is also a bare-faced lie:-

a : open, unconcealed: barefaced impudence

b : having or showing a lack of scruples: a barefaced lie

I'm inclined to the view that bold-faced is a mishearing of bald-faced, which is the usual American English version, and bare-faced is the usual British English version; both of these mean

1 : having the face uncovered: a : having no whiskers : beardless b : wearing no mask

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I’ve only know it as barefaced lie. Barefaced means ‘impudent’ or ‘shameless’. The OED has a supporting citation from 1852.

This nGram shows that barefaced lie has been more frequent than the two alternatives over a period of 200 years.

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The earliest example of bald-faced lie I can find is this

The Temple Artisan, Vol 5, p98 (1904) "the story is a bald-faced lie or a misrepresentation of facts that the story-teller knows can be easily disproved"

Bare-faced and bold-faced occur in print at least since the 17th Century, and entries with bare-faced lie in the writings of Wesley from 1772 and bold-faced lie in a review printed in 1832.

BARE-FACED and BOLD-FACED

Henry, Earl of Monmouth (1656): I raggvagli di Parnasso or Advertisements from Parnassus [translation from Italian]

"..it is too bare-faced Hypocrisie to seem more to abhor foul words, then foul deeds."

W Sanderson (1658) "A Compleat History of the Life and Raigne of King Charles : from his Cradle to his Grave."

Quote: "...in his bold-faced Treason"

John Bunyan (1678) The Pilgrims Progress

Quote "The others would be said nay, after a little argumentation and somewhat else; but this bold-faced Shame would never have done.

Guy Miège (1684) "A Short Dictionary English and French"

  • "Bare-faced, demasqué, à decouvert" [unmasked, revealed]
  • "A bold face, un effronté, un impudent" [someone brazen, someone shameless]
  • "To put on a bold face, faire l'éffronté" [be brazen]
  • "Bold-faced, effronté"[brazen]

BARE-FACED LIE

John Wesley (1772) Thoughts upon Liberty [Print (1830)]

"But should he not be punished, who publishes palpable lies? and such lies as manifestly tend to breed dissension between the King and his subjects? Such, with a thousand more, was the bare-faced lie of the King's bursting out into laughter before the city Magistrates!"

George Crabb (1818): English Synonyms Explained, in Alphabetical Order

"BAREFACED signifies literally having bare or uncovered face, which denotes the absence of all disguise or all shame... ..a barefaced lie or falsehood betrays the effrontery of him who utters it."

John Walters (1828) An English and Welsh Dictionary

  • "Bárefaced, a. Wyneb agored.."

  • "A bare-faced lie Celwydd goleu.."

BOLD-FACED LIE

The Ecclectic Review For September (1832)

(Review of R Vaughan 1831 Memorials of the Stuart Dynasty)

"The sneer, the sarcasm, the one-sided statement, the perplexing reference, the qualified concession, the bold-faced lie, — all these we could well illustrate by samples of the latest crop."

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"bald-faced" is older and more commonly used (currently and historically) than "boldfaced". In addition, today the term "boldfaced" refers not to the look on the liar's face, but rather implies the lie was told loudly and/or audaciously, similar to the purpose of boldfaced type in a printing press or word processor (to add extra oomph to the text).

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  • 1
    Previous answers cite dates in publications. These Google 1grams would seem to show that boldfaced and bald-faced are used with similar frequencies. And on examining actual examples in the ngrams, it's clear that the printing usage skews frequency ratios enormously. Have you evidence to support your claims? ELU requires evidence. Sep 30, 2020 at 15:01
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Merriam-Webster on line has entries for each, bald-faced and bold-faced, both with similar meaning. While others above have well defined the term Bald-faced, Merriam-Webster refers to bold-faced to the printing industry going back to the 1500's. Telling a lie in bold face print style would be particularly evil, as well as obvious.

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Another possible avenue to explore for the "bold-faced" term is the typographical argument -- not a human face that is bold, but a typeface that is bold, and worthy of a lie so big it is a headline.

Though I am skeptical that this is the "case" (pun not intended), my American West-coast vintage 1952 brain has a lifelong habit of using "bold face" for this reason, which is not necessarily hinging on the Gutenburg date, because in writing non-inflected languages by hand, there are not that many practical tools for emphasis than all-caps, bold, italic or underline. Circles, it would seem, are the province of histrionic letter-writers. Greek and Roman inscriptions are not helpful because they are inflected, and Latin was the lingua franca of European literature up through Gutenburg.

This philographical argument is weak if "bare-faced" and "bald-faced" predate the modern dailies', periodicals' and signage use of bold for emphasis, whereas perhaps most post-Latin bibliographical literature has used Italic.

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Bald-faced and bold-faced are obviously metaphorical, figurative, or extended, and have evolved to the same meaning -> audaciously and without any shame or attempt to conceal. Indeed even in early use, it is hard to see the difference.

Bold seems to be the earlier in the examples given in OED:

Bald 4. transferred. Without the usual or natural covering (in various senses):

a1616 W. Shakespeare As you like It (1623) iv. iii. 106 An old Oake, whose bows were moss'd with age And high top, bald with drie antiquitie.

Thus a bald-faced lie would be a lie that is spoken without any attempt to hide or disguise that it was a lie.

Bold 4.a. In bad sense: Audacious, presumptuous, too forward; the opposite of ‘modest’.

c1175 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 2185 Son se maȝȝdenn wurrþeþþ bald Ȝho wurrþeþþ sone unnþæwedd.

Thus a bold-faced lie would be a lie that is spoken outrageously - without any sense of shame or apology

And thus these two meaning became confused:

The following entries are under "bald" but (apart from the context in the 1606 example) could appear equally well under "bold".

b. figurative esp. in reference to the necessity of ‘seizing [opportunity]’.

c1590 C. Marlowe Jew of Malta v. ii Begin betimes; Occasion's bald behind; Slip not thine opportunity.

1606 T. Dekker Seuen Deadly Sinnes London vi. sig. F2v Thy Inhabitants Shave their Consciences so close, that in the end they grow bald, and bring forth no goodness.

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