or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Chamber of Secrets

I don't always immediately look up anything that interests me. Sometimes I don't get around to it: sometimes it has to percolate for a while. Sometimes that while is a few years, or more.

Here's the lead sentence is Michael Kinsley's latest editorial on Slate.com:

Here in Washington, we're all competing to see who can be more po-faced about Mark Foley and the congressional pages.

I've never heard the expression "po-faced" used in speech, though I've read it a number of times: it means "bearing an expression of frowning disapproval", and seems extremely British to me. I assumed it couldn't be a contraction of "poker-faced", since the meanings aren't particularly convergent, but I couldn't imagine where else it might have come from.

The so-useful World Wide Words tells us that the "po-" in "po-faced" comes from the French pronunciation of the second word in the expression "chamber pot", which make perfect sense and explains everything:

Po-faced was perhaps applied to such people because they react to insalubrious comments with a look of insufficiently disguised distaste, as if suddenly presented with a used chamber pot.

Doesn't that say it all?

Not quite:

The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests it might have been influenced by poker face, which is one of the senses it gives for the word; that is not quite how it is understood today, but it does imply somebody who is trying not to show a reaction to some happening of which they disapprove.

That's what I was looking for! Nevertheless, the meaning isn't the same: a poker face is generally one of complete inexpressiveness, and not ill-concealed revulsion. I don't think "po-faced" was influenced by "poker-faced" as much as it calls it to mind. It certainly did for me.


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