Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

The Unsmile

This is a smile.

image via Wikipedia

And this is a grin:

This is a frown, which (it seems to me) is a kind of anti-grin, an inverted grin:

It’s not grin-like in the sense of showing teeth (it’s less easy to frown and show teeth, and doing so is a more directly aggressive signal). Which is to say; it’s not a grimace. But it is an unmistakeable, exaggerated facial indicator of unhappiness, nonetheless. A frown is not as extreme as a grimace, I think. The latter is rarer, and is associated with extremes of pain, unhappiness or hostility.

So here’s my question: what do we call this?

This (also via-Wikipedia) dude is not smiling, clearly. His expression is sad, mildly unhappy, disappointed. But it’s not a full-on frown; it’s not an anti-grin. It is, in point of fact, an anti-smile. Why is there no English word for this expression?

I suppose we might bracket it as a ‘frown’, if pushed. But that doesn’t seem to me quite right. Why don’t we distinguish between ‘frown’ and ‘bigger frown’ the way we distinguish between smile and grin? Indeed, the more I think about this the odder it gets. After all, the nuances and varieties of facial expression are absolutely core to our interpersonal interaction, to our ability to ‘read’ and understand and connect with other people. It’s hard to think of anything more important. We obsess over faces, dream about them, photograph and paint them endlessly, philosophize about them. Isn’t it odd that we don’t have a specific word for this milder, less extreme or more nuanced mode of frown?

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.