Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Facewear #2

Facewear #2

This week we’ll continue our look at things worn on the face.

The verb smile showed up in English about 1300, from Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or possibly Middle Low German. It eclipsed smearcian, the Old English word for smile, forcing smearcian’s unfortunate progeny to become the unpleasant word, smirk. Smile didn’t enter the realm of nounliness until 1560, and all along it has meant exactly the same thing.

Frown has been an English word since the early 1500s, and came from the Old French word frognier, to frown, scowl, snort, or turn one’s nose up. It appears to have entered French from the Gaulish word for nostril, frogna. Frown became a noun in the 1580s.

Blush also entered the language as a verb, appearing in the mid-1300s, from the Old English word blyscan, to glow, blush, or become red. Blush is related to a Germanic word for torch, a Danish word for blaze, and a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to shine, flash or burn, which is the grandmother of the word bleach. In the mid 1300s, the noun form of blush meant a look or glance. This understanding of the word shows up today in the phrase, at first blush. It wasn’t until the 1590s that these two noun meanings of blush started competing, with the redness in the face meaning quickly eclipsing the look or glance meaning. By 1818 the noun blush became something one could apply manually to one’s face.

In last week’s comments section, S.K. Figler asked about the origin of zit (along with some arguably less judicious terms). Zit is a word with unknown origin, and showed up in English in 1966, introduced by American teens. Interestingly, zit’s synonym, pimple, also has no confirmed linguistic source, though it’s been around singe 1400. Some etymologists have suggested pimple may have come from pipligende, an Old English word meaning to have shingles.

Next week we’ll move into the etymologies of styles of facial hair, unless, of course, one of you suggests something more fun to consider. Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.


  1. So the English can't tell a smirk from a smile and the French frown with their nostrils. Yeah, I'd go along with that :-) But we don't know the origins of "zit"? Quel dommage.

  2. Hi Anne,
    I find it hysterical that "forensic" etymologists can figure out the origins of some word born in 1300, but ZIT & PIMPLE remain mysteries. Life is funny (he said, frowing with his nostrils).