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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


At present, the word smile refers to an expression, typically of happiness or amusement, in which the corners of the mouth are turned upwards. While the word is one common, its usage is limited to narratives and commands. For instance, a photographer who wishes his subject to smile may use smile as a command while a writer may use smile to help describe a character’s contentment. Although it is expected that smiling, as a universal expression, is popular in usage, the first recorded use of the word in the English language only dates back to 13031.  In Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne the first use of smiling is found in form of smylyng2.  The Latin relation for smile is mīrus and mīrārī, meaning wonderful and to wonder respectively1.  Looking at the Latin base, it can be interpolated that earlier versions of the word smile were first used to describe feelings of fascination or interest. Following that, the word became used to describe positive reactions to fascination and then narrowed solely to describe an expression based on happiness, relief or amusement. The Proto-Indo-European root is believed to be “smei” or “smi”. From the Proto-Indo-European root, the words smīlan and smieron are developed in Old High German1. Smilan and smieron were words that encompassed all expressions resembling smiling and laughing; however, at one point, the definition of smile narrowed as the Old English word “smearcian”, the origin for smirk, began to be used specifically for unpleasant smiles1. Additionally, the Swedish and Scandinavian version, which use “smila”, and the Danish version, which uses “smile” also shares the same roots2. For more than two centuries smile was used exclusively as a verb until John Heywood uses smile as a noun with his proverb, “Better is the last smyle, than the first laughter” in the book Proverbs and Epigram in 15622. Some time between 1699 and 1828, the smile is periodically used to describe alcohol and this usage becomes a precedent for a later definition in America2. Around the 1840’s, during the first American prohibition, the word smile began to be used, both as a verb and a noun, as the slang for a drink as seen in the Daily News from 1870: “ This ‘gentleman’…. Asked me to ‘smile’”2. This use of the word did not last until the second American prohibition in the 1920’s and died out during the late 1870’s.  The word is also used figuratively in literature such as in J. Dyer’s Grongar Hill: “ Transient is the smile of Fate”2. Around 1779, smile proceeds to be used in in conjunction with of to describe other feelings or qualities through smiles, such as a “smile or satisfaction” or a “smile a recognition”2. Overall, since the initial narrowing of the usage of smile is one that covered both laughing and other types of smiling like smirking, the definition of the word remains fundamentally unchanged.

1.     "smile.". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2012. Douglas Harper.
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=smile&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed November 21, 2012).
2.     "smile, n.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://oed.com/view/Entry/182595?rskey=pyUb9l&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid (accessed November 21, 2012).

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