11

In the etymology age where every possible expression seems to have been run down to its true source, 'Liar, liar, Pants on fire' stands apart because I just googled it and nobody knows its origin fo' sure!

Google search for "liar liar pants on fire" origin

It is usually attributed (inconclusively and without much evidence, as far as I can make out) to an over-200-year-old poem apparently by William Blake, which is itself suspected of being a fake. Can some etymology wizard at ELU provide an authoritative answer backed by appropriate citation?

Peculiar usage: an old person in my hometown, who loved American colloquialisms, used to twist this around and say, "if it looks like pants and it seems to be on fire, then it's probably a liar!" [He later left India to join his son in the USA.]

  • 1
    I was suspecting that there was a tie between lying and fire prior to the expression. I don't really know the bible well.. I know bugs bunny has the devil on fire. I barely skimmed Dante's inferno in college.. I googled "dante's inferno lying" and stumbled to this section : Bolgia Eight: In this trench, the souls of Deceivers who gave false or corrupted advice to others for personal benefit are punished. They are constantly ablaze, appearing as nothing so much as living, speaking tongues of flame. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malebolge – Tom22 Jun 22 '17 at 2:34
  • 1
    The following source offers an interesting insight into its possible origin: barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/… – user66974 Jun 22 '17 at 10:32
  • 3
    Intriguing suggestions from one and all. Thanks a lot for the interest! NOW IF somebody would write a well-referenced answer in the classical ELU style.... I know this is a difficult question because it is not so easy to pinpoint the origin of schoolyard chants and other colloquial expressions. – English Student Jun 22 '17 at 11:56
  • 1
    The poem itself sounds crude and unpoetic, so it seems like somebody has been 'hanging it' on the great poet who surely would have written finer verses? “Deceiver, dissembler Your trousers are alight // From what pole or gallows Shall they dangle in the night” sounds especially threatening; OMG! I an quaking in my boots... – English Student Jun 22 '17 at 13:16
  • 1
    @Sven Yargs thank you for sharing your experience; the origins of such phrases are fascinating if rather 'obscured by the mists of time.' The reason I heard it recently is that a short, fat child named Kitty (age 6) shouted "liar, liar, pants on fire!" when her 4 year old brother made a tall claim about the length of snakes. Interestingly enough, the Cambridge English dictionary online defines 'tall claim' as Indian English for 'tall story' which was news to me and shows just how much our geography influences our English! – English Student Jun 22 '17 at 21:00
11
+100

Using the phrase "Liar! Liar!" seems to be older than the popular phrase associated with burning trousers. OED provides an early citation of the phrase used twice in a row:

a1607 H. Chettle Trag. Hoffman (1631) sig. I2v Lyer, lyer, licke dish.

I was able to locate the full verse in a later edition of the same book.

enter image description here

The phrase "licke dish," is interesting and personally I don't know how to explain that turn of phrase. However, it is remarkably similar to the phrase "lick spit" seen later in a context that seems relevant to pants on fire:

enter image description here


Meanwhile, use of "Liar! liar!" repeated for emphasis appears reasonably common in the 1800's. A few examples:

'I know nothing of acoustics, Signor. I am at a loss to understand your meaning," said he softly.

'Liar! liar!' shouted I.

But his chosen organs, the Tribune, and other black Republican papers, and the black Republican preachers, have unceasingly denied it, with vulgar epithets of lie! lie! and liar! liar!

'Liar, liar!' shouted the woman, springing forward to clutch the jewel


The article cited by Josh in the comments claims that the full line ("Liar, liar, pants on fire") was cited in print in 1933. The earliest reference I could find was from 1945, but clearly alludes at a historical context around the phrase:

"Liar liar pants on fire, Nose as long as a telephone wire!" sang Fenella to the timeless scornful tune of childhood. "Anyway I'm not black," said Christine. "Anyway I'm not white," said Fenella. "So!"

enter image description here


Overall, this collection of references still seems to suggest that the phrase, in some form or another, was used in verse before any sources I've been able to locate.


While I have no direct evidence of a link, the rhyming line "nose as long as a telephone wire" suggests a possible allusion to the popular and widely translated children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881-1883) by Carlo Collodi, where, as most readers probably know, the marionette Pinocchio's nose grew each time he told lies.

Following this line of speculation, it seems worth noting that at three points in the novel, Pinocchio is threatened with burning as firewood.

He swam on and on. After a while, he turned around again and called louder than before:

"Good-by, Master. If you ever need a piece of good dry firewood, remember me."

  • I seem to have read through several of the same sites, one of which explained the 'lock dish' as being a reference to dogs liking at their dishes to pretend they haven't been fed. I didn't keep the link unfortunately. – Spagirl Jun 22 '17 at 20:55
  • @Spagirl that makes sense, and could explain why "lick dish" and "lick spit" appear to mean the same thing (maybe?) – RaceYouAnytime Jun 22 '17 at 20:58
  • Thanks for another fine answer from RaceYouAnytime -- I upvote! You have marshalled strong evidence that the current phrase probably didn't have a single point of origin, but evolved through linked variant usages. – English Student Jun 22 '17 at 21:08
  • 1
    See also: Pants on fire ! visualthesaurus.com/cm/dictionary/pants-on-fire – user66974 Jun 22 '17 at 21:24
  • @Josh in the context of that 'pants on fire' rating I wonder if 'politifact' itself will enter the English language as an euphemism, as in is that a fact or a politifact? – English Student Jun 22 '17 at 22:59
0

I think people are just looking a bit too hard. It’s been around for a while, but I doubt it’s biblical or anything. The words rhyme, and it’s likely that simple. Even old poems that might it seem based on contain the rhyme for he same reason.

I seem to recall an additional line, “... hanging up on the telephone wire!” After the initial chant.

0

Have never heard that second line and finally at 73 I decided I'd best learn the rest of the poem - certainly nondescript - maybe I shall complete the lyrics. © *"Liar liar pants on fire Matches caught you out you liar Tell the truth and you will see, Happier you'll always be."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.