Is there any phrase or expression or idiom for a situation where things are actually innocent but appear bad.

Example: A young girl is not supposed to go to a boy´s home if his parents are not there. if she does this, then an innocent meeting takes the form of a “wild or crazy time” in the eyes of malicious gossipers.

  • In most English-speaking countries this scenario sounds very 'old-fashioned'. In the days when such opinions were usual. a girl was said to have 'compromised herself' if she had allowed herself to be in a situation where intimacy with a man could have taken place. Jul 13, 2022 at 6:59
  • thank you for answering I just put that as an example. the reason I asked is that in Spanish specifically in Mexico we do have a saying for things that may look apear bad even if they are innocent so I was wondering if there was something similar in English like a saying or idiom or expression for those situations. the scenario was just the example that cross my mind,
    – dess
    Jul 14, 2022 at 2:07
  • More apparent than real. End Man.
    – Zan700
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:05
  • 1
    It looks worse than it is springs to mind. Jul 14, 2022 at 8:00
  • If it's (really) not what it looks like, the innocent parties should just go with the flow and give the gossipers something to talk about, imo.
    – Papa Poule
    Jul 14, 2022 at 18:53

5 Answers 5


Based on your follow-up answer specifically, I think there are two phrases that that might fit:

  1. More than meets the eye

Which MacMilllanDictionary defines as an expression "used for saying that someone has qualities or experience that someone else does not know about". Note the use of singular "eye" instead of "eyes"

You said "in Mexico we do have a saying for things that may look apear bad even if they are innocent", but this phrase is a bit more generic, in that it can be used for good or bad situations. That is, you can use "more than meets the eye" to impute either good or bad qualities.

For example, a man working at a women's shelter, you can say "there's more to meets the eye" to suggest he has ulterior perhaps lascivious motives. Conversely, if someone is a hard-shelled curmudgeon but deep down is kind, you can say "there is more than meets the eye" to suggest that they might be a kind person who puts up a front.

  1. It looks worse than it is

Is a common expression, and I think is precisely what you're trying to say, but I don't think it has the status of "idiom".

I couldn't find a definition online, but here are a few sources where the phrase "it looks worse than it is" is used in the title of the article:Example A,Example B Perhaps self-explanatory, but the expression means that something may seem bad, but in actuality it is not as bad as it seems. "Not what is seems" is a variation of this which might be used in exclamation.

Some other thoughts, depending on exactly what you’re trying to capture...

You could perhaps say “harmless”, because this is implicitly suggesting that someone is misjudging / misunderstanding / misconstruing something to be harmful or nefarious and you’re assuring them that in actuality it is harmless or innocuous. (This is reasoned along the lines of the “Antonymic Misinterpretation / X Implies the Existence of Y” meme which I won’t go into.) Other words to focus on the innocence of the person being falsely accused, would be blameless (without blame) and exonerated (term for being accused and then cleared of guilt ). "Harmless fun" is an example that springs to mind, suggesting something may seem bad but in reality the fun is harmless. By using harmless fun instead of just fun, you're emphasizing that you're aware that something may appear bad but it is good-natured.

You could also suggest the accusations are “specious”, ie, “apparently good or right though lacking real merit; superficially pleasing or plausible” , if you want a word to describe the situation from a different perspective, ie the logical argument of the accuser/ “mis-perceiver” as opposed to the general situation. (Note the usage of specious and spurious are distinct, with a good discussion here.)

Finally, I know this is a stretch, but if you want to refer to the behaviour of being perceived in a bad light intentionally, the biological term “aposematic” and “Deimatic behaviour” could be used, perhaps metaphorically. Briefly and roughly, these both are used to by animals as signals to potential predators that they are dangerous, with aposematic being a true signal (brightly red colour and they in fact are poisonous) and deimatic being a bluff meant to startle a predator (appear dangerous)

In summary... I think the saying "looks worse than it seems" is not a particularly poetic expression but is closest to what (I think) you're trying to capture. I would be interested to hear the Spanish expression as well! There might be a direct translation.


You could always use the proverb

Appearances can be deceiving,

which can have both negative and positive connotations, depending on the context. Quoting McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, FreeDictionary illustrates this with the following examples:

  • Edward seems like a very nice boy, but appearances can be deceiving. (negative)
  • Jane may look like she doesn't understand you, but she's really extremely bright. Appearances can be deceiving. (positive)

This proverb is used, as you can see, to 'sow' some doubt in the general opinion deduced from so called obvious circumstances.

  • Appearances can be deceptive in British English. Jul 15, 2022 at 7:23
  • I think we know enough about things like human perception, time, and space to know that appearances are always deceptive.
    – Pound Hash
    Jul 15, 2022 at 20:26

I cannot suggest a single word that can serve all such cases. But here are the suggestions that come to my mind-

One way of saying it would be to focus not on the act itself but on its interpretation. A word like misconstrued will work well in the case.

His offer to help was misconstrued as an attempt to influence the witness.

The other option would be to use a different word for each case, depending on factor that caused the confusion:

For instance:

The neighbors' imagination was fired up by her visit to Mike at an inopportune time when his parents were away.


His ill-advised move to go on offensive led to the confusion.


He supported this move out of his misplaced trust in the Prime Minister.


I would preface my advice with "For the sake of appearance (or appearances)", it may not be a good idea for you to visit with his parents absent.

  • 1
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    – Community Bot
    Feb 6, 2023 at 4:33

How about this quote from The Phaedrus, a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus? The latter said:

"Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many."

(from BrainyQuotes)

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