May 4th, 2014


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?


Bristol's a fun place to be this weekend, what with the food festival and May Day and good weather. And the Park and Slide, of course... I chipped a fiver into the kickstarter for the project, but didn't put my name into the hat for a go on it. I rather wish I had, now.

Park St yesterday from the bottom:


(Where I also saw a Morrisman going into Morrison's)


And this afternoon, from about halfway up the street...

Meanhile in Queen's Square, an equestrian statue takes on some a tented army of triffids....

And on Gloucester Rd., a bicycle powered Maypole!