Is That a Smirk on Your Face, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Here’s a word that gets misused a lot, at least in the manuscripts I’ve seen in recent years. Smirk.

It can be a noun or a verb. But no matter how it gets used, I think some writers are missing the fine nuances in smirk, the subtleties that distinguish it from, say, smile. Or grin. (Or even grin wickedly, although I like a wicked grin myself.)

Smirk has a slightly negative connotation in my mind. It’s a smart-aleck smile. Even a smarmy smile. It’s not a genuine smile. Not really a happy smile. Not particularly friendly. It’s smug, condescending; it’s closer to a sneer than a smile, to my way of thinking, a way of mocking the situation or the person at whom it’s directed.

My favorite dictionary defines the verb form thus: “to smile in an affected or conceited manner: smile with affected complaisance; to simper.” The noun is described as “an affected smile: simper (the solemnity of the ceremony was broken by smirks, whispered jokes, and repressed titters …).” Yeah, that’s it exactly! (And simper, if you’re interested, is to smile in an affected, coy, or silly manner.)

But what I’m often seeing is smirk used as a substitute for smile—and that doesn’t work for me. (We all expand our vocabularies by reading words in context, especially once we’ve quit bringing home those mimeographed lists of twenty words we have to know by Friday. So every time smirk is misused in a novel, someone, somewhere, attaches the wrong definition to it in his brain’s vocab list. Yes, I’m talking about the dumbing down of society here, doggone it, and I’m making my little stand against it.)

I’m the sort of editor (and writer) who generally likes simplicity in the descriptive narrative. Just call a smile a smile. (Guy Kawasaki is another a big fan of smiling, and spends a lot of time explaining the difference between a genuine smile—a Duchenne smile—and what he calls a “Pan Am smile,” illustrated here in panel 3.)

There are nuances, of course: one can grin (showing the teeth in a broad smile, particularly to show amusement or laughter) or leer or even beam (with pride, say). I used grin wickedly above, but excessive use of adverbs is frowned upon these days, so you’d want to watch phrases like smiled happily, not least because it’s redundant.

But just because you see smirk in your thesaurus in the entry for smile, it’s still a very specific action; a smirk is not a direct substitute for a smile, my friends. Any parent of a teenager could tell you that. :)

Tweet: Is that a smirk on your face or are you just happy to see me?

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12 Comments

  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’ve been bugged by this, too! The one that really gets me though, is crocodile tears. The proper use, of course, is when talking about artificial, contrived tears. But I hear it used often to describe real tears that are particularly pitiful. Aaargh!

  2. TNeal says:

    When I saw your title, I thought, “Maybe smirk doesn’t mean what I think it means?” (shades of “The Princess Bride” in that line). I now smirk at the ignorance of my own knowledge. I have been known to assign the wrong meaning to a word but smirk is not numbered among them. Good post!

  3. Marti Pieper says:

    I agree. Words matter. And less is often more. But I’m not sure I like the use of “simper” as a synonym for “smirk” (your favorite dictionary notwithstanding).

    To me, “simper” has an inherent flirtatious quality (think Ruby Gillis in Anne of GG). “Smirk,” as this mother well-versed in Teenager knows, does not.

    • Jamie says:

      Agreed! Simper makes me think of 17th-18th century European gentlemen in their powdered wigs and knee breeches. :)

  4. […] the beginning of sentences of dialogue. Often it’s amazing (and you know how I feel about that!). Smirk shows up a lot too. Recently a manuscript I worked on had dialogue littered with you and I both know and listen as a […]

  5. RTB says:

    Sounds like the author of Fifty Shades of Grey never saw this blog. You could now do another entry on “inner goddess.” My inner critic just died a little.

  6. Bek says:

    You are now officially my most favourite blogger! Thank you for attacking all those horrid words, and the common misuse of wonderful words!

  7. […] word use gets a lot of attention, as does this one. I’ve also had little rants about amazing and smirk, about pronoun abuse, and many […]

  8. […] participles!), awkward sentences, comma splices, using the same phrases over and over, clichés, misused words to show don’t tell, adverbial dialogue tags, leaden dialogue, exposition masquerading as […]

  9. Jasmine says:

    I think I can blame Professor Umbridge for this one, but to me, simper has sickly sweet, disgusting connotations to it. Smirk seems far more sexual or flirtatious, but I think that’s due to the misuse over time, and the fact I’m pretty young, and have grown up reading stories about hot guys constantly smirking to imply their mischievous intent. What’s your opinion on this? And I’m almost certain you know about how the dictionary has added a new definition to the word literal. I think I cried…

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      I think that in the vernacular word meanings do morph over time, for sure! As is evidenced by—as you note—literally. And hopefully, thankfully … ugh. :)
      Thank you for stopping by!

  10. […] repetition in your beats: your characters constantly blush/flush/turn red; they frequently smile or smirk; they glance or look over, huff* or sigh … all the time. This is a problem I see regularly, […]

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] the beginning of sentences of dialogue. Often it’s amazing (and you know how I feel about that!). Smirk shows up a lot too. Recently a manuscript I worked on had dialogue littered with you and I both know and listen as a […]

  2. By Short Saturday: A Literary Agent Rants a Little on 14 December, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    […] word use gets a lot of attention, as does this one. I’ve also had little rants about amazing and smirk, about pronoun abuse, and many […]

  3. By Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes on 25 February, 2014 at 6:09 am

    […] participles!), awkward sentences, comma splices, using the same phrases over and over, clichés, misused words to show don’t tell, adverbial dialogue tags, leaden dialogue, exposition masquerading as […]

  4. By One Person’s Tic Is Another Person’s Style on 24 November, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    […] repetition in your beats: your characters constantly blush/flush/turn red; they frequently smile or smirk; they glance or look over, huff* or sigh … all the time. This is a problem I see regularly, […]