Belie and Betray

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A reader asks for a discussion of these two words:

I get confused when using “belie” and “betray.” Sometimes they seem to mean the same thing. Would you please explain when each word should be used, and why.

The OED cites two verbs spelled belie that were in use as early as 1000 CE.

One belie meant, “to lie around or encompass.” It was used literally to describe a spatial connection. For example, an army “belied by the enemy” was surrounded by the enemy. This belie was also a slang word for “have sex with.”

The other belie is the one still used in modern English. Its original meaning was “to deceive by lying.”

Shakespeare plays on the different meanings of the words lie and belie in the scene in which Iago employs innuendo to stoke the Moor’s fears about Michael Cassio:

OTHELLO: What hath he said?
IAGO: Why, that he did—I know not what he did.
OTHELLO: What? what?
IAGO: Lie—
OTHELLO: With her?
IAGO: With her, on her, what you will.
OTHELLO: Lie with her? lie on her? We say “lie on her” when they belie her! Lie with her—that’s fulsome. —Othello, IV, 1.

The belie associated with falsehood expanded to have the following meanings:

1. to tell lies about; especially to calumniate by false statements.

2. to give a false representation or account of, to misrepresent; to present in a false character.

3. to treat a thing as false by speaking or acting at variance with it.

4. to show to be false, prove false or mistaken; to falsify.

Belie is often seen in headlines. Here are several examples from the Web:

Companies’ Pro-Equality Rhetoric Belied by Their Campaign Donations

Image of a Wealthy Gore Is Belied by a Net Worth in Senate’s Minor League

Outsider claims belie political insider past

Sometimes belie is used to mean cover up or conceal:

Their campaign promises belie a more sinister agenda.

Pickford’s small stature and cinema sweetness belied a shrewd businesswoman, forming her own production company.

Beware of euphemisms that belie “hellish” behavior.


A common use of belie is, “to misrepresent” or “to reveal as a lie”:

Laboratory Tests Belie Promises Of Some ‘GMO-Free’ Food Labels

CO2 emissions belie climate promises

Shattered streets of Homs belie Assad’s promises of peace

Sometimes belie is synonymous with “call into question”:

Maria’s strength and intelligence belie our image of a “genteel southern lady” 

Strike, protests belie Haitian government’s free education claims. 

Marilyn Monroe and Joanna Lumley belie the dumb blonde image. Monroe was reputed to have an IQ of 170 and Lumley is a member of the Royal Geographical Society.

The verb betray also has multiple meanings:

to lead into error or sin
A “Don Juan” is a villain who betrays virgins and abandons them.

to deliver into the hands of an enemy
When he had obtained the confidence of the citizens, he betrayed the town to Darius.

to prove faithless or treacherous to a friend
How should we react when we find out that a friend betrayed us? 

to prove faithless to one’s country
Aaron Burr is often alluded to as the stereotypical traitor: a man who betrayed his country.

to reveal
A red brick chimney rising up the north side betrayed the existence of the small fireplace in the living room.

The intended meaning of betray is usually obvious from the context.

Because the meaning of belie is not always clear, writers may choose from the following alternatives:

be at odds with
call into question
show to be false

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