Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “white lies” as, “lies about small or unimportant matters that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar definition saying, a “white lie” is, “a harmless or small lie, especially one that you tell to avoid hurting somebody.” So telling a date you need to leave because of an emergency, for example, avoids hurting their ego unlike telling them you simply don’t want to be on the date anymore. Other types of lies are more like scare tactics, including these lies people tell kids (that you probably still believe).

The term white lie was first used in the 1740s to describe a fib or exaggeration, defined as a “trivial or childish lie”, that is told as a way to embellish a good story. There is some discussion as to whether white lie is a racist term, though there is not a popular corresponding term such as black lie. White has long been associated with rightness, purity and goodness, and black with darkness and evil, but these connotations are most probably inspired by day and night, not race. For the most part, white lie is not considered an incendiary term. Nevertheless, some activists challenge certain uses of the words white and black in the English language, so it is wise to keep your audience in mind when using the term white lie.

We can see the same historical associations of white with goodness and purity and black with darkness or evil in the terms white magic and black magic. These color associations likely stem from the idea of and contrast between day and night and light and dark. Other colors have long held symbolic meanings as well. For example, red often symbolizes anger, while green can symbolize envy.

This is to say that the use of white in white lie most likely originally had nothing to do with race. Nevertheless, there is much popular discussion about the appropriateness of using the phrase. And there are those who argue it brings up racial implications that make it worth avoiding.

Some utilitarian philosophers have supported lies that help achieve positive outcomes, aka white lies. Rather than white lies and black lies, scientists often use the terms prosocial lies and antisocial lies. They note that prosocial lies are told for someone else’s benefit, while antisocial lies are told only for one’s own personal gain. And they point to a perhaps positive side of prosocial lies in that they uphold the idea of empathy and kindness—that other people’s feelings matter—saying that they can even, ironically, increase social bonds and trust.

Still, some experts note that there’s no need for white lies at all, and that it’s possible to be both truthful and respectful at the same time. For example, if you don’t like the food someone has made for you, you could simply tell them you really appreciate the effort they went to on your behalf.


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