What Exactly Is a "White Lie"? Insights from a Lexicographer

Kory Stamper, author of "Word by Word," traces the etymology of "white lies."

Posted Mar 02, 2018

On February 28, 2018, Hope Hicks resigned as Director of Strategic Communication for the White House. Hicks' resignation came a day after she spent eight hours testifying before the House Intelligence Committee and admitted under oath that her job at the White House occasionally required telling "white lies" for President Trump. On Feb. 27, the New York Times headline read, "Hope Hicks Acknowledges She Sometimes Tells White Lies for Trump." 

The moment I learned that Hope Hicks had confessed to telling "white lies" on behalf of President Trump, I asked myself "What exactly is a white lie?" Like millions of people around the globe, I went to the online version of Merriam-Webster Dictionary and found: "WHITE LIE: A lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” (Lookups for "white lies" at Merriam-Webster spiked 6500% after Hicks resignation.)  

After reading this compact definition, I wanted to dive deeper and learn more about the etymological roots and definitions of the term "white lie." So, I reached out to Kory Stamper, who is a lexicographer formerly with Merriam-Webster and author of the upcoming paperback Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. In April 2017, Terry Gross interviewed Stamper on NPR in a highly informative (and hilarious) Fresh Air piece, "From 'F-Bomb' To 'Photobomb,' How The Dictionary Keeps Up With English."

In my email, I asked Kory Stamper if she knew the etymological roots of the term "white lie" along with a two-part question. My first question was, "As a lexicographer, how would you define a white lie?" In her email response, Stamper said: 

The phrase "white lie" most often refers to a minor falsehood, usually told to maintain the social order, spare people's feelings, or make a person look better than they are. "White lie" first shows up in print in the 1500s:

"I do assure you he is vnsusspected of any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye) wiche is taken for a Small fawte in thes partes." —Ralph Adderley, letter to Sir Nicholas Bagnall, April 10, 1567

"White" here means "free from evil intent" or "intended to be harmless," and this meaning is a natural extension of one of the word's earliest meanings: innocent, pure. (We do have evidence of "black lies" in the historical record, too: lies told with evil intent or specifically to malign or injure another.)

Early uses of "white lie" in print make it clear that they are intended specifically to spare a person's feelings or make them seem better than they are. This has been the main force of the phrase's meaning since the mid-1500s, but make no mistake: there was no conflating "white lies" with truth or fact, and there have been warnings issued in essays and morality tales against the telling of white lies (as they are, regardless of motivation, lies) since at least the 1600s.

The second part of my question to Stamper was, "Based on your interpretation of the etymology and current definition of a 'white lie,' can you think of a circumstance in which it would be ethical for a White House communications director to tell "white lies" to the public and/or media on behalf of President Trump?"

Stamper responded, "As for whether it's ethical for a White House communications staffer to tell "white lies" about the President (and with the understanding that I'm not an ethicist, but just a humble word nerd), that would have to depend entirely on the lie itself and the motivation for telling it. One person's white lie is another's whopper."  

Huge thanks to Kory Stamper for taking time out of your hectic week to share these timely insights on "white lies" through the lens of lexicography. Much appreciated!