Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Lady Sneerwell's Dressing Table
One of the pleasures of learning another language is of course the reflected light it throws on one's own. Trying to understand the differences between warau and hohoemu, which between them cover "laugh", "smile" and "sneer", has got me to wondering about what exactly is implied by the last of these in English. What is a sneer, considered as a facial expression?

  • The OED keeps things unhelpfully general: "a look or expression implying derision, contempt, or scorn".

  • Merriam-Webster Online is slightly more specific: "an expression on a person's face that is like a smile but that shows dislike and a lack of respect for someone or something".

  • But it's the Free Online Dictionary that goes into most detail: "A scornful facial expression characterized by a slight raising of one corner of the upper lip."

Neither Merriam-Webster nor FOD mentions the eyebrow, which - as the word "supercilious" suggests - is also an important component of the sneer, at least in my book.

By way of putting off marking research, I put "sneer" into Google Images, and classified the first page of results.

a) The largest group conforms to the FOD's "asymmetric" sneer theory.

lopsided sneers

Interestingly, all but one appears to sneer on the left side of their mouths. I wonder if this is related to handedness? [ETA: I've checked, and Angelina Jolie, the one exception, is left-handed. Go figure.]

b) Next come the snarly sneers:

snarly sneers

Hello again, Mr Rumsfeld.

c) Next, a small clutch of disgusted sneers:

disgusted sneers

d) An incredulous sneer:

incredulous sneer

e) And finally, the one picture that I would call a True Sneer:

sneer proper - note the supercilium

I'd be interested in which of these you would describe as sneers. Is there a transatlantic difference, I wonder?

I think the eyes have to be narrowed for it to be a true sneer. A number of these just look surprised. Elvis is more puppy dog than hound dog.

I agree. Elvis's is more of a leer than a sneer IMHO. :) I wouldn't say Angelina Jolie is sneering; she looks like she's biting her lower lip in a moment of angry frustration to me.

The only ones I'd say were good examples of a sneer are the one in black and white in the first batch (woman holding a cigarette) and the one you labelled True Sneer.

Though having tried to do sneery expressions in front of the mirror, I'd say that the lip curls up symmetrically, the nose wrinkles a little in disgust and the eyes narrow.

I too have tried this in the mirror, and only seem able to get either "mirthless smile" or "constipated".

The nose is involved too. It is our version of a snarl, sort of. The lip crinckles and the nose flares. It is pre-primate I think. You are saying 'I can't believe I am smelling what you just said/did."

It is pre-primate I think

Now I'm picturing a sardonic shrew.

Shrews are, I am sure. And cats sneer. The more I think about it, the more I think it is smell related. It is using the body to convey the idea of an unpleasant smell. It is primitive, but I think all facial expressions are.

I can only wrinkle the left side of my mouth.

The sneer looks natural on Cheney. I think, (and I hope,) most of us do not sneer much in daily life, he may be an exception.

Pretty much all of them but Elvis registers as a sneer to me.


For me there are two kinds of sneers. One could be called the Stagey Sneer, like Billy Idol's and many of the photos in groups a and b. Very asymmetric and snarly, a big display.

The second is what I see when reading dialogue like "'Blah blah blah,' he said with a sneer." This conversational sneer is much more smile-shaped and mocking. To me that's the real sneer. I got to photos d and e and thought, yes, that's much more like it.

Yes, I agree about the Stagey Sneer. The best sneers should seem effortless. In fact, doesn't sprezzatura mean contempt? That's not insignificant, I think.

Edited at 2014-05-04 07:20 pm (UTC)

Great question.

I think a sneer (for me) is one of those things that you read about, but that I don't know I can say I've ever seen in person, at least as a pure facial expression. To say of someone that they're sneering is a performative utterance, an accusation, not an observation. I think when you get photos like those you Googled, it's the photographers who are showing conventional, actorly or painterly portrayals of sneering, but I'm not sure that anyone really makes such a face as a serious (i.e. natural, not camped up) expression. It's like what I think about "having a a lump in one's throat".

(But maybe, IRL, it's really the expression caused by the way someone says something vicious, the facial expression that goes with spitting out certain words.)

I agree, it's hard to detach the purely visual aspects of a sneer from the rest. Now I'm wondering whether, if I were crouched in the bushes someone's living room, I would be able to tell simply by looking past their curtains whether they were sneering at their companions. I'm not sure.

I definitely did use to get a lump in my throat (presumably a form of constriction that felt like a lump) when I wanted to cry. Not sure it happens any longer.

I get that all the time (I cry a lot). I agree, though, it's more like a constriction than a lump.

Oh, I still cry a lot. But I can't remember the last time I got the lump thing. I think it went away around the same time I stopped blushing at the drop of a hat.

I don't know that I would have described any of those pictures as a sneer... Perhaps there has to be an element of posture or body language to back up the expression?

For the avoidance of ambiguity I think that must at least be very helpful, if not essential.

Funny. It hadn't occurred to me until you brought it up, but I've always though of a sneer in terms of tonal expression rather than facial expression.

It appears to be both, but whether you can in practice have one without the other I'm not sure. It's easier to detect a sneer on the phone than on the telly with the sound turned down, I imagine.

I often do what both Pellinor and I call a sneer, when Pellinor is being particularly Tiggerish and needs to be withered a bit. It involves an assymetric curled lip (I can only curl the left side of my lip; the muscles that would curl the right don't seem to exist), narrowed eyes and lowered, frowny brows. Looking in the mirror, I think it looks most sneery when viewed in semi-profile, the body half turned away, as if you don't care enough about the target of your sneer to face them fully, even as you're withering them with the power of your mighty sneer.

The pictures in set A have the assymetric curl, but few have the narrowed eyes and lowered brows. The first one in B has the eyes and brows that match my idea of a sneer, but the mouth is all wrong. Your "true sneer" in E is a bit ambiguous, in my eyes. It could possibly be a moderate sneer, but it could also be a half-smile.

Looking in the mirror, I think it looks most sneery when viewed in semi-profile, the body half turned away, as if you don't care enough about the target of your sneer to face them fully, even as you're withering them with the power of your mighty sneer.

I think you're right that for the true sneer there must be a kind of contemptuous indifference. I find that quite hard to combine with the twisted lip look, though, which suggests that on the contrary your antagonist has managed to get under your skin.

I think the ambiguity of the last one is real - and is actually part of the sneer's power, leaving the sneeree disorientated and uncertain as to whether s/he's just been insulted or not.

The top group looks more like sneers to me. The others more like grimaces.

Don´t know about The International Sneer but perhaps it´s as Mayakovsky said: "today people do nothing but bare their teeth at each other" (from memory and The Cloud in Trousers, I think).
Most of the pictures shown look as if demonstrating diverse forms of psychotic stages, some resulting in mere tics and twitches others in laming grimaces though the incredulous one doesn´t look anything but that. As someone said, it could almost be a half-smile (on Elvis´ face) couldn´t it, even smell might cause what cats do just look at what they eat and wonder no more...
I agree to what nightspore said, it´s all in the eye (nose, mouth and eyebrows) of the beholder but here´s The Female Sneer for you just in case of doubt (from Female Mysticism, not to be confused with The City of Ladies, the one pictured is from Stockholm).
Maybe, it´s even a matter of Zeitgeist. My friend the jazztrombonist (from Gothenburg) once remarked on modern models and porn starlets (as opposed to the vintage ones he adored): "why do they always look so angry?"


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