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).


The Phantastic Phantasmagoria

Folklore in Literature

Phantasmagoria doing his best scary face

You may be wondering who the strange creature is on the front page of this blog.  I first discovered him when I was little in a beautifully illustrated collection of stories and poems by English author, Lewis Carroll.

Lewis Carroll, of course, is most famous for writing the wonderfully nuts Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but he was also a fine poet who wrote a number of poems for children.  Phantasmagoria and Other Poems was published in 1869 and was illustrated by American illustrator, AB Brown.


“Allow me to remark That ghosts has just as good a right, In every way to fear the light, As men to fear the dark.”

So, the creature?  He’s a small spook called Phantasmagoria from the poem of the same name.  Phantasmagoria has a cold and in sneezing, is overheard and discovered by the narrator. Over a number of verses, the spook explains to the narrator the elements involved in the job of haunting, the place of ghosts above other magical creatures in a house and the day-to-day rules of being a ghost.  He explains why ghosts usually groan to scare people, though he himself chooses the more ‘fashionable squeak’ when haunting his housemates. Phantasmagoria is a very likeable little ghost – not in the least scary, although he does try!

A phantasmagoria as featured in Tim Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow'

A phantasmagoria as featured in Tim Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’

And what of the word?  Phantasmagoria?  A phantasmagoria is a magic lantern that is used to project images of spooky things such as skeletons and witches around a room.  These were used in theatre productions in the 1700s when gothic tales were all the rage.  People back then loved horror and fantasy, with many plays, books and art featuring scary subjects.  A phantasmagoria would have been used to project the image of a ghost onto a wall as part of a play, hence the naming of the little ghost in the poem.  But is he a real phantom, or is he an illusion created by a phantasmagoria?  That is up to you and your imagination.