The Truth Behind Pants on Fire?!

Folklore in Literature

You will have heard someone say or chant the words:

“Liar, liar, pants on fire, hang them up on a telephone wire”

Liar, Liar..

Liar, Liar..

It’s a pretty bizarre thing to say, if you think about it.  I would assume the pants are actually Americanised trousers, rather than your best boxer shorts, but who knows?  And why would you hang your burning trousers on the telephone wire – a health and safety risk, surely?!

Following a sibling argument this afternoon in which accusations of spiriting away a much-loved teddy were levied at Oscar, Tilly asked me why we say the phrase “Liar, Liar, pants on fire!”  I had to admit I had no idea as to the origins of the phrase and why it is so widely used.  Looking into it, it seems no-one else really does either…

Work by poet and painter, William Blake

Work by poet and painter, William Blake

Reading into it, it seems lots of people think the phrase was taken from a poem by groovy English poet and painter, William Blake in the 1800s.  Blake – one of my favourite Romantic dudes – was a bit of odd chap, who created many weird and wonderful pieces of art and poetry in his day.  The internet clearly think that the “Liar, Liar” line comes from a poem he wrote in 1810 called, handily, “The Liar”.

Deceiver, dissembler
Your trousers are alight
From what pole or gallows
Do they dangle in the night?

Fantastic!  Except it really is fantastic in the fantasy sense, because Blake didn’t write that poem.  Someone somewhere clearly did, and upon reading it you can see where the phrase may have come from, but really this seems to be an urban myth.

Doing a bit more research, the phrase seems to have been used a lot by cross children all over the United States from the 1950s onwards, so it probably found it’s way into popular culture and became as well-known in Britain as it is in the USA.

Calling someone a liar is never nice – you shouldn’t do it, kids! But if someone has been telling porkie pies, feel free to carry on this strange tradition (quietly).

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