When’s the last time you told a shameless fib? Did you get caught? Do you know why? Maybe you couldn’t stop your eyes from darting around, or your hands from fidgeting. Maybe your nose started growing rapidly, like Pinocchio’s. Or did your would-be targets point out a smoky smell, coming from the seat of your jeans? It’s an association as strong as a steel rivet: from schoolyard taunts to political cartoons to fact-checking websites, a true liar’s pants are always on fire.
As popular as the saying has become, though—and as satisfying as it is to chant or say—“liar, liar, pants on fire!” is not the most intuitive of phrases. Although people’s pants do sometimes catch on fire, this correlates more with carrying around accidentally explosive materials than it does with truthfulness. Meanwhile, the vast majority of liars make it through life unscathed by this particular fashion catastrophe. The mystery of the phrase’s origins is compounded by the fact that several of its more popularly reported etymologies are, in fact, lies.
“‘Liar, liar’—without the ‘pants on fire’—has been around a long time,” says Barry Popik, a linguist who specializes in slang and proverbs. As early as the 1400s, people would call each other out using the phrase “liar, liar, lick-dish!,” the idea being—according to one proverb dictionary—that the accused will “lie as fast as a dog will lick a dish.” Popik dug into the complete phrase in June of 2010 for his etymology blog, The Big Apple, and found a collection of English naval ballads from 1840, featuring a short poem that seems to come from this lineage, and that links two of the phrase’s main aspects, lying and fire: “Liar, liar, lick spit / turn about the candlestick,” it reads. “What’s good for liar? Brimstone and fire.”
All of these, though, are missing that crucial pants element. The earliest full example Popik found was from the 1930s—specifically, the August 13, 1933, issue of the Sunday World-Herald. In an article titled “Fat Pat to Rassle Savage Because the Public Wants It,” a reporter wrote that fans had been clamoring to see “Fat” Pat McGill rassle Steve Savage, to the extent that the local wrestling promoter has been “deluged by letters, swamped by phone calls, and buried under an avalanche of telegrams.” This news is followed by a cheekily defensive parenthetical: “It is so, you liar, liar, pants on fire; there were several people who called up.”