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. :)
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