Words

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The Independent Online
Smile

At last the Tories are getting down to the basic issues. "We have a choice economically," John Major has told us, "between smiles and tears." Orwell's Piggy dictator Napoleon was right when he decided to keep the message simple. s good, tears bad. It was Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet and sage, who pointed out that if you laughed the world would laugh with you. And vote for you, with luck. No doubt Mr Major's advisers, with their access to the best sources, will have consulted the Wilcox uvre ("Weep and you weep alone," was her next line, you may remember) before launching the party's poster with its Labour voter shedding a blood-red tear.

Eighteenth-century poetasters would always say the landscape was smiling when they wanted to give a picture of pastoral bliss. There was nothing like it for encouraging the feel-good factor. It's true that smiles are not always sunny, that the smiler may have a knife under the cloak, that one may smile and smile and be a villain and so on, but the prevailing weather is fine. The etymology of smile is a little confused; it sounds like one of those words that have been with us for ever, there being presumably no point, once it was fixed on, in finding another word for one of the universal human reactions. As the pianist Sam said in Casablanca a smile is still a smile.

Walter Skeat's etymological dictionary traced it to Scandinavia and related it to mirari which is the Latin for "to wonder at", reminding us that a Middle High German version was smiren. The OED ignores this suggestion. But it does make it clear that the Anglo-Saxon for "smile" was smirk, and that it wasn't till later that smile took over to describe the genuine article, leaving smirk to the simperers and the self-satisfied. Were too many smiles recognised as false, so that another word had to be used for the honest ones? Hard to say; but Mr Major's smile must surely be honest. He certainly has little cause to smirk.

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