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A smirk

A smirk is a smile evoking insolence, scorn, or offensive smugness, falling into the category of what Desmond Morris described as Deformed-compliment Signals.[1]

A smirk may also be an affected, ingratiating smile,[2] as in Mr Bennet's description of Mr Wickham as making smirking love to all his new in-laws in the novel Pride and Prejudice.[3]


The word derives from Old English smearcian, via Middle English smirken. It is from the same root as smile, from Proto-Germanic *smar-, but with a velar root extension -k- (with intensive or frequentative function) particular to English also found in talk (from the root of tell) and stalk (from the root of steal) etc.

The specific meaning of a mocking or unpleasant, malicious smile or grin develops in Early Modern English, but until the 18th century, it could still be used in the generic sense " to smile".[4]

Historical examples[edit]

George Puttenham in the 16th century described what he called “a mock with a scornful countenance as in some smiling sort looking aside”.[5]

"A constant smirk upon the face, and a whiffling activity of the body, are strong indications of futility," the Earl of Chesterfield once wrote in a letter to his son.[6]

German-born psychiatrist Fritz Perls considered the most difficult patients to be the clever know-it-alls, recognisable by what he called “a specific kind of smile, a kind of smirk, a smirk that says, 'Oh, you're an idiot! I know better. I can outwit you and control you'”.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Desmond Morris, Manwatching (1977) p. 188-9
  2. ^ B. Kirkpatrick ed., Roget's Thesaurus (1996) p. 572
  3. ^ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (PEL 1975) p. 341
  4. ^
  5. ^ Quoted in B. Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) p. 72
  6. ^ Tegg, William (1861). Lord Chesterfield's Advice To His Son On Men And Manners. London, England: Bibliotheca Bodleiana. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  7. ^ F. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1973) p. 79

Further reading[edit]