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13 July 2009

Monday's Words - is there such a thing as a 'white lie'?

Many people will claim they never, and never would, tell a lie. Most, however, if pressed, will confess to telling the occasional 'white lie', in order to spare someone's feelings, or avoid a confrontation. A slight deviation from the strict truth with no harmful or malicious intent.

In fiction, sometimes telling a 'white lie' can get the hero or heroine out of a tight situation, or deepen the conflict, causing all sort of problems, depending on the circumstances. Most of us use the term without thinking too much about it - but what is the origin of the phrase "white lie"?

According to Michael Quinion, my usual source of reference, "It's based on the ancient Western idea of polar opposites, represented in popular culture through "white" meaning good and "black" its evil antithesis. We have "white magic", for example, beneficent magic that's opposed to the malign black variety. The term "white paternoster" meant a prayer or charm recited to protect against evil at night ...The opposite was a "black paternoster", a spell recited to conjure up evil spirits or devils."

Well that's fairly logical when you think about it. Black and White in fact! What do you think? Is a white lie ever justified? Would you allow one of your main characters to tell one? As a reader does it make a character seem less worthy in your eyes?

*Thanks to Michael Quinion of WORLD WIDE WORDSWorld Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2009. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org