If you tell a brazen untruth, is it called a bald-faced lie or a bold-faced lie?
100 years ago, the answer might have been neither, as the phrase barefaced lie was in fashion. Barefaced literally means beardless but implied bold or even brazen, perhaps because it was unacceptable for a man not to have a beard. Here are two examples from the early 1900’s:
“I denounce him as a liar the most barefaced.” The Sin Of Monsieur Pettipon
“They used to extort money from him with barefaced lies, and laughed at him behind his back.” Jean Christophe
It’s unclear to me why both examples seem to be influenced by French.
Somewhere along the way, barefaced gave way to bald-faced. Miriam-Webster dictionary speculates that bald seems even more awful than bare, although I think I would rather be bald than bare in public. Here’s a sample usage:
“The fancy leaflet … says that this insurance is ‘comprehensive’ and ‘pays liberal benefits.’ That is a bald faced lie, experts say.” Good Housekeeping
To confuse the matter, since the late 1500’s, the phrase bold-faced has been used to describe someone who goes beyond being bold and is brazen to the point of being impudent.
“people of otherwise unblemished character told him bold-faced lies” The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
As word processing became more common, it’s tempting to think a bold-faced lie is one that stands out – i.e., it’s printed in bold type. However, some consider using bold-faced lie to be the result of mishearing the phrase bald-faced lie.
So, which is it? While barefaced is now antiquated, both bold and bald-faced are in common use. However, since words matter, it’s worth pointing out that the experts prefer bald-face. In fact, The Bar Association goes so far as to admonish us not to use bold-faced lie.
Amusingly, they don’t suggest we shouldn’t lie at all.