Words have lives.  They are born – fresh, unique, screaming for attention.  They grow and find their places.  The go-getters have many jobs in their careers, sometimes even invading other languages.  The more subdued cut a narrower swath.  Words live much longer than we do but they too are mortal.  Some get marble headstones such as those in Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English.  Others, presumably, are buried in unmarked graves.  But, great or small, every word changes over its lifetime.
         Over the past several years I’ve been wondering about the verb “smirk.”  The first time a student used it as a synonym of “smile” I corrected her.  After the fourth student used it in this sense I began to suspect I was missing something.  Was “smirk” melding into “smile” and losing its particular meaning?  I decided to set up a carefully-constructed etymological study.  I got in a couple of bottles of wine and asked some friends what they thought about  smirk.  The free-wheeling discussion included the ideas of power, derision, privacy, inwardness, coldness and self-satisfaction.  In part two of the study we had a smirking contest.  The best smirk involved a kind of smile/grimace accompanied by lowered eyes, a small sniff and a subtle head toss.  In part three we nominated notable public smirkers.  George W. Bush received several votes and we confirmed his eligibility by checking him out on youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2jnjeZNTsI
In particular note the smirk at 1:10.
         I was relieved to find that smirk in its particular sense seems to be alive and well.  For a recent sighting in the wild see Margaret Atwood’s  story “Stone Mattress” in The New Yorker. (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/12/19.) This is a chilling revenge tale and at its climax Atwood uses smirk  to delicious effect.   “She remembers that smirk.”  A smirk as the final straw in a motive for murder?  In this story – absolutely.  Long live smirking.


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  1. I'd attach a smirky face here if I could.

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