The Language of Expressions… Is a Mess


February 21, 2016

What's the Rant This Time?

You may have figured out by now that I sometimes use this platform to rant about things. Well, welcome to another edition of Alex the Whiner, because I'm annoyed by something I'll never be able to change and I want to vent about it. If you're visually impaired, especially to a degree where you can't see facial details, you'll probably know exactly what I'm about to talk about. If not, prepare to reconsider things, because I'll bet you never thought of some of this. At least, I don't think you've thought about it in this light.

Have you ever considered the ways we describe facial expressions in the English language (note that I'm only talking American English), and how utterly whacky and confusing they can be? Remember that this is coming from a guy who's never once seen an expression on anyone, not even in a mirror. When it comes to trying to come up with ways to describe expressions in something I'm writing, or gathering the emotion of a character in something I'm reading based on the expression alone, things can get confusing.

Smiles

A smile is easy, right? It means happy, excited, or other good things. Based on the adage "turn that frown upside down", it's clearly an inverted frown. The corners of the mouth go up, the eyes maybe squint a bit,and… that's it, probably? Except no, it's nowhere near that simple, judging by the ways we've invented to describe different smile types.

You can have a small smile, or a brief smile. That small one can grow to what's called a big/large smile, but there's also a wide smile. Is wide different from big? Why aren't there narrow smiles? You can also grin, which is a step up from a smile, yet somehow big/wide smiles still exist despite the invention of grins. Grins, by the way, can also be small, large, or wide. Then we have the descriptive words for smiles/grins: devilish smile, forced smile, evil grin, contented smile, happy grin, amazed smile, toothy smile/grin, and plenty more. Do all of these facial expressions actually exist, or are they just literary shortcuts to convey a character's emotions? If I had a sighted actor and a sighted observer, and told the actor to show a contented smile and then a happy smile, but NOT a grin or a big smile, would the observer even know the difference between the two expressions? Would the actor have a clue what to do?

Frowns

A frown is, of course, the opposite of a smile. It expresses sadness or disappointment, and consists of the corners of the mouth turning down. That's all I know, but if English is my guide, there are tons of descriptions we could use to differentiate frowns. Angry, petulant, deep, pensive, brooding, concentrating, and more. Yet, there are no large/wide frowns, or even small ones? That said, frowns can be "slight", so maybe that's the same thing as a small one? Also, my smile question stands: do sighted people honestly see the difference between these? Are they all totally different expressions, but labeled with "frown" simply because they tend to relate negative things? That is, has the frown become a blanket term for expressions that aren't actually all frowns?

Looks and Stares

There are some expressions we just call "looks" or "stares". A look of concentration, an angry look, a blank stare, looking excited, looking tired, a hard stare, a dark stare, and plenty more. What's an angry look compared to an angry frown, or a thoughtful look to a pensive frown? Is "look" here used as a way to avoid using "smile" or "frown" all the time, or is there more to it? Do you frown when you give a dark look, or does "dark look" mean its own expression? How, exactly, can a stare be "blank"?

Grimaces

The grimace is a complete unknown. It's not a smile, because it's usually associated with unhappy things. Neither is it a frown, though, because you don't "grimace sadly". Yet, it shares some adjectives: "angry frown" or "angry grimace" are both phrases I've seen before, for instance. You can also find grimaces of disgust, rage, or fear. What, exactly, is this mysterious grimace?

The Nose

There's not as much to say about the nose in terms of facial expressions, but there are two odd phrases I can think of. First, one's nostrils can flare, which I gather is when the openings get larger in an attempt to take in more air. Oddly, I've seen this used when describing anger, as in "his nostrils flared as his rage built". The other thing a nose can do is "wrinkle", which makes no sense. When I was young, I imagined noses shrinking a bit and flattening against faces, getting all flat and wrinkly. Obviously that's not what really happens, but the question stands: just what does it mean to wrinkle a nose?

Eyes

The eyes, and associated lashes and brows, are perhaps the most confusing at all. Imagine being seven or eight years old, watching TV without being able to see the characters at all, and hearing this phrase spoken by the person describing the show: "The camp counselor rolls her eyes." She WHAT! Which way did they roll--up and around, down and around, or left or right? How many times did they roll? Can humans roll their eyeballs like that? I can't, but I can't wiggle my ears either. Are there people out there who can send their eyes spinning all over the place at will? That's either awesome or creepy, I'm not sure which!

Eyes themselves seem to be remarkably adept ad varying their appearance, at least according to literature. The eyes can gleam, glitter, sparkle, shine, communicate a person's level of intelligence, go dull, vacant, or blank, become glassy, or any number of other actions. They can also, somehow, express emotion, as in "gleaming with malice" or "shining with love". What, physically, happens to the eye when it does all this? How does it work? Can you truly see love or hatred in the eyes, or is it the overall expression and authors just like to use "eyes" instead of "face" for some reason?

Then there are the eyebrows. They don't roll, but people can apparently do a lot with them. You can raise your eyebrows, or maybe raise just one of them. Your eyes can get wide, but that's different from raising your brows, even though said brows still go up when your eyes get wide. You can lower your brows, but when your eyes narrow, that's going to happen anyway. Squinting also lowers your brows but is different from narrowing your eyes. Oh, and let's not forget the best one: arching an eyebrow. I've never read of arching both brows--it's always just one. Is arching different from raising, and are either or both of those different from widening your eyes? And not to leave out lashes: what does "batting one's lashes" mean, exactly? Finally, your eyelids can flutter; what's the difference between a lid and a brow, and why can lids flutter and lashes bat, but brows do neither?

See What I Mean?

If you've never seen expressions, the ways English describes them are very confusing. Rolling one's eyes is the best example (it took me a long time to figure out that eyes don't just go whirling about), but there are plenty of descriptors that really don't make sense in the absence of visual information with which to pair them. Some are likely literary license, used to avoid drawn-out explanations and quickly convey mood or emotion. Others are probably repeats, used solely to avoid repeating the same few words all the time. Whatever the case, it sure gets confusing!


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