All you want to know about human smiles

December 28, 2003|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff; Chicago Tribune

A Brief History of the Smile, by Angus Trumble. Basic Books. 240 pages. $26.

There are smiles that make you happy. There are smiles that make you blue.

And there are smiles that make you sappy.

There are more versions of the smile than anyone used to the vacant smirks of broadcasters and politicians might imagine. Many of them can be found in Angus Trumble's A Brief History of the Smile, which treats the specialized facial muscular contractions by category: decorum, lewdness, desire, mirth, wisdom and deceit. It is the kind of book the reader can rummage around in for all kinds of lore the author has accumulated:

* The smile of infants up to 4 months may cheer doting parents, but it is, by one theory, "a reflex making possible the rapid and effective expulsion of gas."

* British and American subjects are urged to say cheese to simulate smiling for photographs. "The Danes use appelsin (orange); the Swedes omelett (sic); the Finns muikku (a kind of fish); the Koreans kim chi (cabbage). ... The Japanese use the English word whiskey."

* The smile of the Mona Lisa was not particularly remarked upon until "the overheated intellectual climate of European Romanticism" stamped the painting as a masterpiece.

* There are legends of deaths incurred by girning -- a traditional practice among the British, those hilarious islanders, of making grotesque faces while framing the face with a horse collar.

* A favorite subject of Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century was the hennetaster, or chicken groper, a boy who grins broadly as he holds a hen and "fumbles with her private parts to see if there is an egg on the way."

Trumble provides a description of the mechanics of smiling, the action of muscle, tendon and bone, along with physiological aspects. He also explores the etymological relationships between smile and smirk and other words.

But where he is particularly acute is his explanation of how smiling -- smiling broadly in public, in portraits, in open society -- came to be so commonplace over the past century. It was not always so. In the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield advised his natural son, "The vulgar often laugh, but never smile; whereas well-bred people often smile, but seldom laugh." American presidents up to the toothy Theodore Roosevelt cultivated an air of seriousness and gravity; their portraits are solemn.

The change, Trumble argues, came about through dentistry, photography and moving pictures. Improvements in the dental arts made it possible to correct for the missing or rotting teeth that were commonplace among the great and the low alike through most of human history. Photography made it possible to make an instantaneous record of a face, and moving pictures -- both film and television -- captured the mobile expressiveness of the face in what has become a dominant mode of perception.

Such has been our progress, from solemnity and decorum to a beaming superficiality, where everyone acts as Alexander Pope described: "Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray, / As shallow streams run dimpling all the way."

John McIntyre, The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk and adjunct instructor in the communications department of Loyola College, is more given to grimacing than grinning.

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