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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.

  • 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 '13 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 '14 at 19:13
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    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 '14 at 0:56
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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 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 part of a "Poetical Essay" from The Gentleman's Magazine, volume 5 (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 a 1755 translation of Crevier's History of the Roman Emperors 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):

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.

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 Gales & Seaton's 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.

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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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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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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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