Today's post will serve as a disambiguation of sorts—for myself if for no one else!
I know that in my own writing I have referred to people as "bald-faced" liars or "bold-faced" liars. Well, late last night I learned that the grammatically proper descriptor for this type of liar is actually "barefaced." Interesting, huh?
Let's get one of my English-related pet peeves out of the way first, though. It rankles me mightily whenever I read someone's weblog or online comment and the author refers to a person as a "lier" instead of a "liar." Yuk. Certainly I can see the individual's line of reasoning: A man or woman lies; that is to say, speaks an untruth. Consequently, he or she must be a lier. *cringe*
On the other hand, I still find my teeth set on edge involuntarily whenever I see this particular misspelling. The correct spelling is l-i-a-r, folks. One of my favorite comedies, in point of fact, is Jim Carrey's 1997 classic Liar Liar. And for completeness, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun liar as "one who lies or tells a falsehood; an untruthful person."
Now then: let's get to discussing the distinction between the bald, the bold, and the bare. First up we have Professor Paul Brians, who holds that the "barefaced" usage is the most appropriate:
The only one of these spellings recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “shameless” is “barefaced.” Etymologies often refer to the prevalence of beards among Renaissance Englishmen, but beards were probably too common to be considered as deceptively concealing. It seems more likely that the term derived from the widespread custom at that time among the upper classes of wearing masks to social occasions where one would rather not be recognized.
Dr. Brians is correct with respect to his OED citations. The participial adjective bold-faced is defined by the OED as "Having a bold or confident face or look; usually impudent." The adjective bald-faced is described by the OED simply as "having a bald face." The adjective barefaced is explained by the OED as "with the face uncovered: hence with no hair on the face, beardless, whiskerless."
Playing devil's advocate, I can see how the aforementioned definitions for bold-faced and bare-faced could be shoehorned into service idiomatically. To this end, let's have a look at the following piece from Merriam-Webster Online, which allows for all three usages:
He wanted to know if an out-and-out liar is more properly called a bold-faced liar or a bald-faced liar.
The truth is this: both are used, and so is barefaced. Bald-faced is the newest term; its first known print appearance dates back only 62 years, to 1943. Bold-faced is some four centuries older than that, dating to 1591. Although you might guess bald-faced developed out of a mishearing of bold-faced, the meanings of the two adjectives are not synonymous. Bold-faced means "bold in manner or conduct; impudent"; bald-faced has the same meaning as barefaced: "open; unconcealed"; and "having or showing a lack of scruples."
Barefaced is one year older than bold-faced; its first print appearance dates to 1590. But the original meaning of barefaced was literal: it meant "having the face uncovered," either "beardless" or "wearing no mask." Not surprisingly, folks using the word barefaced were open to shifting the adjective into the metaphoric realm: barefaced soon came to describe something "unconcealed or open"; and then something "showing or having a lack of scruples."
Now, as many of you know, I'm nothing more than an amateur linguist. Accordingly, I defer to the experts at the American Dialect Society (many of whom are not American, incidentally). In the hyperlinked thread I provided, you'll see that those folks provide references for the barefaced liar usage that date back to the early 19th century.
The fact that the Eggcorn Database contains entries for bold-faced and bald-faced lends credence to my argument that barefaced is probably the most grammatically sound adjective when we label an individual a "teller of untruths."
However, because we are good and nice people, we don't pigeonhole people like that, right?
Enjoy your day.
UPDATE: From the "How the hell can people think this?!?" files, you'll discover if you perform a Google query for the string ball-faced liar that there are plenty of boys, girls, men, and women in our world who believe that this exceedingly unfortunate usage is somehow accurate and/or acceptable. Um...ouch?