9 different ways to say ‘smile’
You may be familiar with that old joke: what is the longest word in the English language? Smiles – there is a mile between s and s! Well, those of us in the know would cite the supposed lung disease pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis as the longest word in English, and that certainly isn’t something to smile about.
And that opening paragraph may have made you ‘give to the features or face a look expressive of pleasure or amusement’ – or, I will concede, one ‘of amused disdain, scorn, etc.’ In either instance, you have followed the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of the verb smile. But it is far from the only term relating to smiling…
The list below only includes verbs, but we can’t help mentioning the noun Gioconda. This term is used attributively to describe an enigmatic smile resembling that of La Gioconda – otherwise known as Mona Lisa – in the painting of that name by Leonardo da Vinci. An example can be found in a 1921 article by Aldous Huxley: ‘Miss Spence was smiling too: her Gioconda smile, he had once called it…’ Similarly, Mona Lisa can be used adjectivally of an enigmatic smile of this variety (and Mona Lisa Smile may ring a bell as the name of a 2003 film).
From the Latin arrīdēre (‘to smile upon’), this verb has meant both ‘to smile at, laugh at, scorn’ and ‘to please, gratify, delight’. The same root, ridere, gives the rare and obsolete verb subride (‘to smile’).
‘To smile radiantly, broadly, or good-naturedly’. Although a beam of wood and this verb seem to have little in common, they both stem from the same root (Old English béam ‘tree’). The etymological journey probably incorporates beams of light as resembling planks and a beaming smile being radiant like the sun.
Public school slang for ‘to smile’, from the word cheese being notionally or actually pronounced to form the lips into a smiling expression, at the demand of a photographer. The verb dates to 1930 with this sense, according to current research, as does the noun (when meaning ‘a smile’).
Fleer can be compared with Norwegian and Swedish dialect flira and Danish dialect flire, meaning ‘to grin, laugh unbecomingly’, and (in English) now means ‘to laugh jeeringly’. In obsolete senses, fleer also meant ‘to grin or grimace’ and ‘to laugh or smile flatteringly’.
You will doubtless know grin (‘to smile broadly’, although it originally meant ‘to bare the teeth in pain or anger’), but were you aware that grin is also a largely-obsolete verb meaning ‘to catch in a noose; to snare’? The latter relates to the noun grin, a variety of snare or a noose, and certainly isn’t a laughing matter.
This word has been used to mean ‘surpass in smiling; to smile more than’ since the 17th century. Less competitively, and currently first found in the work of R. B. Sheridan, outsmile can also mean ‘to overcome by smiling’.
Still in common use, meaning ‘to smile in an affectedly coquettish, coy, or ingratiating manner’, the origin of this word (dating back to the 16th century) is unknown.
Skin one’s teeth
This metaphor – like the even more colourful peel one’s ivories – takes the smile back to basics, and describes its visual effect. It shouldn’t be confused with by the skin of one’s teeth (‘by a very narrow margin’) which, in turn, is a misquotation of Job 19:20: ‘I am escaped with the skin of my teeth’ (i.e. and nothing else).
‘To smile in an irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly way’ (although originally, in Old and Middle English, smirk meant simply ‘to smile’, and gained other connotations later). Variants found in Scottish dialect include smirkle, smirtle, and smicker. Elsewhere James Joyce included the nonce-word smilesmirk in his novel Ulysses (‘She smilesmirked supercilious.’).