In the song “Happiness”, from her 2020 release Evermore, Taylor Swift articulates the break-down of a relationship. She asks a bitter rhetorical question:
Tell me, when did your winning smile
Begin to look like a smirk?
In one of those uncanny moments when popular culture addresses our historical research interests, these lyrics jumped out at me. I have been working on the history of the gesture we know as smiling. Curiously, this history intersects and overlaps with the very different trajectory of the word smirk.
The verb to smile — originating in a hypothetical Middle Low German word smilen — is not recorded in English before the fourteenth century. And when it does appear, it does so in a very specific, remarkably tentative way, as if people really are “beginning” to smile.
Here is a telling example.
In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1386), Pandarus has been trying to persuade his niece Criseyde to accept the love of Prince Troilus. Finally, she overcomes her initial hesitation, and asks if Troilus can speak well of love.
‘Kan he wel speke of love?’ quod she; ‘I preye,
Tel me, for I the bet me shal purveye.’ [so I may prepare myself the better]
Tho Pandarus a litel gan to smyle,
And seyde, ‘By my trouthe, I shal yow telle….’
(Troilus and Criseyde, II. 503-506)
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 061, Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, f.37r,
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Pandarus’s smile is described only briefly; and it is minimal. Yet to the attentive reader, it signifies Pandarus’ unspoken pleasure and knowledge that Criseyde has started to unbend and warm towards the idea of Troilus.
Middle English is notoriously slippery in its use of the verb onginnen, from Old English onginnan. When used in the past tense (gan)as an auxiliary verb, as here, it sometimes carries the full meaning of “began to do something…”; though at other times it is simply a short-hand auxiliary verb to signify the past tense. Here, does Pandarus begin to smile a little, or does he smile a little? Either way, the gesture calls up a world of understanding between narrator and reader as we observe Criseyde responding to Pandarus’s powers of persuasion. This slow-moving smile is a good example of what I think we might call intimate faciality: the close-up examination of the face.
Most other uses of smile in Middle English are modified in this way, as characters begin to smile, or smile a little, or in part. This use of the verb smile corresponds in meaning to French sourire, Italian sorridere, from Latin subrideo, a sub-laugh: a smile on the way to becoming a laugh.
But what did medieval people do before they used the verb to smile? The Old English verb for smiling is smearcian, and this appears several times in Middle English as smirken. This is the same word as modern English “smirk”, but the modern associations with a malicious or contemptuous expression aren’t part of its medieval meanings at all. These associations don’t enter English until about the sixteenth century. In effect, it was only as smiling became more widespread that smirk developed its current meaning of a malicious or smug gesture.
Conversely, the word “grin” from Old Norse grenja, “to howl”, enters English as a word that describes the particular physical gesture of opening the mouth and baring the teeth. It is used in Old English and Middle English of demons, the devil, monsters, and wild animals. It does not develop the modern sense of a less threatening and more cheerful gesture until the sixteenth century.
It’s not surprising that words in English change their meaning and usage. But these semantic and textual histories are important documents in our history of facial rhetoric and facial gesture. They add another dimension to the cultural history of the smile by Colin Jones, for example, who writes illuminatingly about the social and cultural difference made to the public meaning of the smile by hygiene and dentistry in eighteenth-century France.
For example, if fourteenth-century poetry starts to show interest in the slow-motion movement of a smile associated with private knowledge and inner understanding, we might develop the hypothesis that this kind of intimate facial gesture becomes more apparent and of greater interest in the increasing use of private rooms in late medieval domestic architecture, where instead of eating and spending their lives in the public hall, the noble family would increasingly retreat to a private chamber. This social phenomenon was noted by Chaucer’s contemporary, William Langland.
Unhappy is the hall, every day in the week,
Where the lord and the lady have no liking to sit.
Now has each rich man a rule to eat by himself
In a private parlor to avoid poor men,
Or in a chamber with a chimney-corner, and leave the chief hall empty
That was made for men to eat their meals in.
William Langland, Piers Plowman, B.X.97-102, trans. E. T. Donaldson.
Reading poetry in English might well have taken place in this smaller, more close-up setting, where facial expression might also have been studied with closer attention.
Taylor Swift’s question about a smile becoming a smirk also raises issues of temporality, sociality and private knowledge on a small and intimate scale. Was this a particular smile that began to change into a smirk? Did the outer edges of the person’s mouth move upwards? Or did her perception of the smile change? Perhaps it was not a smile on a particular occasion but a characteristic facial gesture, at first attractive, and now less so? Is a smile an intentional act of communication, or something perceived and remembered by another? Swift’s ingenuous address, “Tell me … ”, plays on this ambiguity of perception: how could it be possible for the smiler to answer her question? And what is a “winning” smile? That’s another word with rich shades of meaning from something that might be charming, to something that might be triumphant, on the way to becoming an unpleasant smirk.
We are finding that in modern culture, from the late medieval period on, people read faces closely all the time, not just in literary texts, but also, in popular lyrics and in political culture.
The current Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, sometimes wears a facial expression that has become known as a smirk. It was the work of only a few minutes on Twitter to find close analysis of the Prime Ministerial face. Here is just one gloss on some video footage of Scott Morrison from March 2021, when Liberal MP Andrew Laming was charged with taking photographs of a woman in a shop as she bent down. The accompanying tweet reads:
Chin raised up because he feels superior looking down his nose at the journo, smug and arrogant. Covers his face to try & hide his smirk because he sees upskirting as being funny probably everything else. This shows he only responded when people protested.
Smiles and smirks are mutable, both in the case of particular gestures, and in semantic histories. Whether it’s in the analysis of political images, the finely wrought lyrics of popular song or the incidental plot machinery of late medieval romance, the vocabulary and semantic history of the smile — and the smirk — are rich topics for the cultural history of facial gestures.