A 2010 blog post from the Prosody Lab at McGill University was pointed in my direction last week, and judging by the reaction when I tweeted it, I'm not the only one who was surprised by the should-be-evident-but-nearly-invisible difference between British and American it reported. The post is by a non-native speaker of English, 'chael' (who I assume is Michael Wagner, the lab director) and it starts (with my added highlighting):
Three weeks ago me and a good friend were standing in front a piece of art by Jon Pylypchuck at the museum of contemporary art in Montréal. The exhibition is still on until January 4th, and I recommend checking it out.
 So looking at one of the faces, my friend asked the following question, which to me was very confusing:

“Do you think this is a frown or a moustache?”

Whatever ‘this’ was, it was clearly below the eyes, and also, the facial expression was sad–so how could it be a frown? My understanding of frown was what I later found in Webster’s online dictionary:
1 : an expression of displeasure
2 : a wrinkling of the brow in displeasure or concentration

When I expressed my puzzlement, I learned that frown, in fact, also means the opposite of smile: a downward facing mouth expressing sadness, and that this is in fact the most common/salient meaning of the word, at least to some.
The author goes on to express surprise that in 10 years in North America he hadn't learned that. But I'm 21 years outside North America and a near-lifetime owner of a Merriam-Webster dictionary (what he's cited above), so I'm even more surprised that I hadn't discovered that other people think frowns are on the forehead. For me, a frown has always meant a down-turned mouth. Sure, the rest of the face gets involved, but a frown is what a sad mouth does.

When I tweeted the question "Where is a frown?" British people told me "on the forehead". When I asked the Englishman in my house, he said the same thing. Fourteen years together and only now do I know that he's been frowning much of the time.

And like one of the blog commenters, the Brits I talked with had an epiphany: so that's why Americans say "turn your frown upside down!" to mean 'cheer up!'.

The Brits who responded to my question were mostly northwards of 50, and I do suspect that younger, emoji-centric Britons may have a different perspective, knowing that the above emoji is called 'slightly frowning face' and having been exposed to the upside-down rhyme for more of their lives. (I am tempted to wake up the 8-year-old and ask her.)

I'm fairly surprised that Merriam-Webster does not have the downward-turning mouth definition of frown—the newer meaning. Neither do most of the dictionaries I consulted—only online-only types seem to have it. While the mouth sense is newer, many northwards-of-50 Americans like me just take that meaning for granted. I mean, I'm pretty sure learned it from my mother.

On the Murphy side of my family, we are genetically predisposed to sticking our tongues out in concentration, though I suppose there's some brow-furrowing too. We just call it a furrowed brow rather than a frown. When we're annoyed we might glower.  All of these should be available in British English too—I'm just mentioning them to point out that not having this meaning of frown does not prevent us from talking about the facial expression.

A continuing AmE/BrE divide on this matter is supported by the nominal collocates of frown—fancy linguist-speak for which nouns go near (±3 words in this case) frown in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English.

The green-highlighted words are the "most American" (left) and "most British" (right) collocates of frown. There's all sorts of stuff there, but most relevant to us, the American column has lips and smile (also eyes, it must be said) and the British column has concentration and forehead. (Though it must also be said, the actual numbers of these collocates are tiny.)

I recommend having a look at the McGill blog post. They've done a little digging to try to find the earliest instances of frown as a mouth-move, which seem to be from the mid-20th century.

Meanwhile, I can't seem to find an emoji that gives the essence of the BrE frown. Is it persevering face? 😣 Is it pensive face? 😔 There doesn't seem to be a 'concentration' face. Quick! Someone! Alert the Unicode Consortium!

Postscript, 13 Sept 2016:
I have to add a link to Josef Fruehwald's tweet—click on the links to see American Sign Language and British Sign Language translations of English frown. Quite a stark difference!


  1. I've long known the opposite of the "smiley face" symbol is called a "frowny face", but I've never realised that there are people who call a downturned mouth a frown.

    I'm British now, but brought up in the USA, and "frown" has always meant a furrowed brow to me. Could it be a generational shift in meaning?

    1. I always knew the opposite of smiley face is "sad face".... and I'm Canadian.

    2. Perhaps regional? My mother was born in 1934, and uses frown to mean a downturned mouth. We are from the Midwestern USA.

  2. Roberta, perhaps you're right about the generational shift. I'm Canadian, and in my mid-20s, and I've never heard anyone in Canada or the US refer to a frown as a forehead gesture. Like Lynne, I'd say someone had furrowed their brow if it was only the forehead, but it would never occur to me that a frown is anything but a downturned mouth (which could be out of displeasure, sadness, etc)

    1. From the USA 62 years. Americans think of a frown as a wrinkled forehead and also a grumpy mouth expression. Why are we even spending time splitting hairs on this. (debating, if you don't know!)

    2. No, I've never met an American who thought of a frown as a wrinkled forehead, and at 27 versus your 62, so that's DEFINITELY a generational thing. Or perhaps also regional as well? My parents never referred to a frown as wrinkled forehead despite being in their 50s/60s.

    3. I'm 56 and this article is the first time I have encountered this. The same for my wife (48 and she has a massive vocabulary that includes several languages (Latin, German, Spanish, French, Japanese and Ango-saxon). My dad (93) is in the same camp as us, so it is not just generational. I was most likely under age five the first time I encountered phrase "turn your smile upside down". We are from the west half of the USA.

  3. It's a change that's underway, having started during living people's lifetimes, so there will definitely be a generational effect. But the indications are that the 'mouth' meaning goes at least generation older in AmE than in BrE.

  4. American in my 40s - frowns have always referred to forehead expression never mouth. My teenage daughter pointed at her mouth and forehead and then with some thought settled on forehead. Maybe regional differences in US?

  5. I was born & raised in California, and have lived in the Midwest for half my life life (28 of 56 years). I've never heard that a frown referred to a forehead. I've seen "furrowed brow", but doubt that I've ever used it.

  6. American in early 30s--"frown" has always meant the mouth meaning to me, same for my Mother. I wonder if maybe it is a southern regionalism?

    1. Southerner here as well; the frown has always been the mouth.

    2. I'm a Southerner and have always known a frown as being done with the forehead or it can me a general dour expression that includes the mouth but definitely has a furrowed brow. However, although my family has been in the South for generations, our roots are in the British Isles.

  7. my wife and I, lifelong Americans, use frown for the forehead gesture, but then again we are 73 and 58 respectively. She's from North Carolina and I'm from New Jersey, but we've lived in NYC for decades. Our daughter is 29. born and living in the city, and has the same interpretation we do. So it may be a mixture of regional and age-grading.

  8. Golly. I'm an American in my early 50s and I never until JUST THIS SECOND realized that anybody thought a frown could happen anywhere but the forehead! I've lived in Canada and England and never noticed an interdialectal difference, perhaps because it never occurred to me that any (N) Americans could have been thinking that mouths could frown. I do use "frowny face" as the opposite of "smiley face," but I'd always taken the disposition of the eyebrows to be the salient feature of the frowny face. And I assumed "turn that frown upside down" was just a rather imprecise figure of speech.

    1. Same! American in my mid-30s, from the Midwest and the rural Northeast, and to me it completely means the forehead gesture. Yes, the mouth might well be involved, and if so it's downturned, but it's the brow-furrowing that makes it a frown. It never occurred to me that some people might mean the mouth gesture!

    2. I'm with both of you. I am from the South and have never heard it referred to as meaning the mouth but I also never questioned what people meant. The way my family used it was as pretty much synonymous with a furrowed brow and could mean a generally dour/grumpy expression but didn't always.


  9. Is it not called 'sad face'? I'd call that the sad face emoticon. A frowny face is like >:( [...because it's frowning- see the brow!]

  10. Mid-30s American, originally from WV - a frown has always been a mouth expression to me. I've never heard of the forehead meaning!

  11. I actually think of >:( as an angry face. I think of a frown as the opposite of a smile, and therefore involving the mouth. But I think of frowning in concentration as a more of a forehead thing, though really involving the whole face if you get right down to it. For what it's worth, I'm 59 1/2 and in western South Dakota.

    I wonder if that mid-century usage ties into the ubiquitous smiley button that was so popular in the late 1960's.

  12. I have to say, I was surprised to see the post grouping people into "non-native speakers" and "Canadians". At McGill University, I would expect those two groups to have considerable overlap. I wonder where Francophone Canadians fall on this issue - do they pick up the mouth meaning, or the forehead meaning?

  13. Non-native speaker here (Dutch). To me, frown has always be the furrowed brow, corresponding to Dutch "fronsen" (same thing). From Old French... "froncir". Never, but never, would I have linked this to a down-turned mouth!

  14. I am a British teenager (18). I never knew that the emoji was called slightly frowning face! But I have heard of the 'turn that frown upside down ' before, but it always puzzled me slightly, until today that is! But in any case, I think that I may have found some examples of a British frown emoji (although they do all look either slightly exasperated or angry): ��������

    1. That's because in the UK a frown has nothing to do with sadness. In the UK a frown is a facial expression that is mostly about concentration and annoyance, and involves knitted brows.

      In much of North America (not the north east) and here in Australia (we moved here when I was age 36) a frown is a down-turned mouth and is entirely about sadness. It is not an expression of annoyance or concentration... unless you are older and seriously upper-class, in which case you also have a touch of an English accent & you still celebrate the Queen's birthday.

      A furrowed brow is not a necessity for a sad expression.
      Sad people do not look like they are angry, annoyed, irritated, concentrating (or constipated, unless that's why they are sad)

      A) * constipated
      In the western US a furrowed brow is not a frown, but is a sign of concertation, anger or irritation.

    2. In Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a frown is NOT the opposite of a smile.
      In the Cambridge Dictionary, a frown is NOT the opposite of a smile.

      But in common use in most of the USA and Canada and Australia, a frown is the opposite of a smile, has nothing to do with concentration or worry (or what your forehead/brows are doing) and is primarily about downturned corners of the mouth.

      Did you catch that? In the UK

      Frown =/= Sad

      in fact, in the UK

      frown = annoyed, worried, concentrating

      - - - - - - - -

      frown noun

      Definition of frown (Entry 2 of 2)
      1 : an expression of displeasure
      2 : a wrinkling of the brow in displeasure or concentration

      Synonyms & Antonyms for frown

      Synonyms: Verb
      glare, gloom, glower, lower (also lour), scowl

      Examples of frown in a Sentence


      She was frowning when she entered the room, so I knew that she was annoyed about something.
      The boss just stood there and frowned at his assistant who, once again, was in trouble.

      See!!! no sadness references. None.

      the Cambridge Dictionary (another UK publication) says

      - - - - - - - -

      noun [ C ]
      /fraʊn/ us/fraʊn/
      an expression in which you bring your eyebrows together so that there are lines on your face above your eyes, often when you are annoyed or worried:
      "Leave me alone!" she said with a frown.


      So in the UK, a frown is not a facial expression of sadness. The idea doesn't even list in UK dictionaries.

  15. How bizarre! To me, a frown is on the forehead. To suggest it's on your mouth is as weird as suggesting it's on your hand or ear. My 17 year old daughter is vaguely aware that it may also refer to a sad downturn of the mouth, but as a secondary element to the forehead furrowing.

    I can frown and not move my mouth at all (although there is generally a tightening of mouth muscles).

  16. I learnt the expression (non-native here, learning English) "frown with anger" because of the post on Wordreference "glower, glare, frown and scowl [order of intensity]". It seems that all that refers to forehead expression only so I've never thought about the mouth.
    In a song I've heard however the expression "smile with a frown" so there's a certain relation to mouth somwehere here. I've checked as well all the way around and I've found "hide frown with a smile" :)

  17. Male American (71) IA-MA-CA, etc. Frown a mouth thing that certainly can, but does not have to, be supported by the brows. Forehead interpretation astounds me.

    1. This response sums it up for me too. I'm a 40ish Australian.

    2. I'm 45 yo New Zealander and to me a frown is on the forehead.

    3. I'm 45 yo New Zealander and to me a frown is on the forehead.

  18. I'm British, in my early 50s (but lived in Arizona 1997-2010) and for me a 'frown' is definitely a forehead expression and 'frown lines' would be vertical wrinkles above the nose. I think I would use 'scowl' for an unhappy expression involving the mouth.

  19. I'm 36 and British, and have only ever heard or read the forehead definition. I'm interested to learn that I've been unwittingly misinterpreting the American use all these years. I can definitely frown without moving my mouth at all (both in puzzlement and distaste), but can't bring to mind a word I'd use to describe a downturned mouth. I do, also, have a dreadful wrinkle between my eyes which I'd only ever call a frown line, whereas the lines to the sides of my mouth are proud laughter lines!

  20. There's also the common saying (at least in the US) that it takes (x number) of muscles to smile but (some greater number) of muscles to frown, so why waste energy? The exact number of muscles cited always varies. If you look at websites trying to evaluate this claim, they appear to be using the US definition of frown meaning the upside down mouth.

  21. I'm a 40-year old American from WV, and I've only ever understood frown as referring to the mouth. I'm pretty sure I was taught this meaning in school.

  22. I'm a 29-year-old American, and I had no idea "frown" meant anything other than a mouth thing. This is kind of shaking my world. What else don't I know?

  23. More than six decades in Texas, and to me a frown has always meant an unhappy expression, which could be a firmly set mouth, wrinkled brow, or downturned lips. But in my younger years, the downturned lips on anyone but babies were as likely as not to be the "fake" frown--trying to look sad when you're not necessarily so; babies might turn down the mouth as part of balling up to cry.

  24. I'm 56 and American. Frown has only ever meant a downturned mouth to me. I never heard of a frown involving the forehead. I would call that a furrowed brow or a knit brow.

  25. UK late 30s here. Frown for me was always the forehead and primarily denotes concentration not unhappiness (though the Outkast song that goes "turn that frown upside down" made complete sense so the other meaning.

    My question for the contingent that see it primarily as the opposite of smile is 'what part of the face do you think of when someone mentions frown lines" for me it is the forehead furrows.

    Interesting to think how older authors (who I assume like me are thoughtful-frowners) works are interpreted by those in the sad-frowners camp. Must be lots of examples where a character is presented with a few pleasant options and is said to have frowned while considering it.

  26. As an American who's about to turn 61, I can't help thinking there's something missing from this conversation. Granted, I never considered the term frown to apply solely to the forehead -- this is a revelation. When frown is used in writing, as in the phrase frown of concentration, it conjures to me an entire gestalt of the face: lips pursed, eyes narrowed, brows furrowed. (A colleague who popped his head into my office once noted wryly that when I'm concentrating I pucker my lips.) To attach frown to the forehead alone strikes me as a ridiculous reduction. After all, a look of incredulity generally carries with it a furrowed brow, but I suspect no one would consider writing the phrase When I told him the astonishing news he wore a frown of incredulity.

    (Aside: in the novel From Here to Eternity James Jones rightly or wrongly shows an affection for the verb to grin. The soldiers who are central to the story are constantly grinning when they say things -- and the things they say while grinning are rarely amusing. It's not hard to discern that Jones, himself a former soldier, uses the word to convey an acceptable form of mirthless contempt, either from one character for another or for the army's unforgiving bureaucracy. These grins anticipate an informal army acronym that would enter common parlance in American English after World War II: snafu.)

    When it comes to emojis -- or to the excruciatingly uplifting admonition to Turn that frown upside down -- we're simply talking about a linguistic convention that equates frown with sad or unhappy or grumpy. (Consider, for instance, the downturned mouth of Grumpy Cat.) I think we can all agree that it's perfectly fine for English words to carry more than one meaning, no?

  27. This is really interesting—both the original post and the variety of responses!

    For me, a stylized representation of an unhappy face with a downturned mouth, like ☹, can certainly be called a frown (or a frowny face). At the same time, though, if you asked me to make a frown as an actual facial expression, most of the action would be above the eyes—scrunching the brows in worry or displeasure or concentration. If I turn down the corners of my mouth to look unhappy, that’s not a frown; it’s a pout or a grimace or something. (And frown lines, for me, are definitely on the forehead, not around the mouth.) So the stylized expression and the real one are both can both be called frowns, but they look very different and they convey different kinds of emotions (though with some overlap).

  28. 53 year old native English speaker, from the West Coast. Always the mouth. I grasp that, in context, it can refer to more, but the downturned mouth is what springs immediately to mind.

  29. Anonymous: You're leaving us to guess which west coast! ;)

    1. Surely only an American (or possibly a Scot, or an Irish person) would use that expression, especially capitalised. I struggle to think what it might mean in England and Wales.

    2. I live on the west coast of Wales. No struggle (frowns)

  30. The downturned mouth icon is a sadface! I (BrE, 60s) would certainly not call it a frown, nor would it occur to me to do so! Frowning, to me, implies anger, not sadness!

  31. American here and definitely always associated 'frown' with the down-turned mouth expression. I would use wrinkled or furrowed brow to describe the forehead. And I know my three year old already has this association as we were just discussing it this past weekend.

    In response to the earlier, anonymous question, 'what part of the face do you think of when someone mentions frown lines?' Frown Lines are on the forehead and are distinct from the frown as Laugh Lines are around the eyes and are distinct from the smile.

  32. I'm 57, born and raised in Michigan, but have lived around the US. I have only heard of frown as a mouth thing. When in thought and looking outward and frowning, my mom would always tell me that it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile and she is 79.

  33. As a 25 year old brit, I too would be baffled by the revelation that a frown and a mustache could be in the same place! To me a frown is definitely about the brow whereas turn down mouth would be 'a sad face'. I knew the saying 'turn that frown upside down meant smile but didn't really clock that some people considered down turned lips a frown. Really interesting difference.

  34. It occurs to me to wonder whether the emotion conveyed by the American and British interpretations of "frown" is different? To me, as I've said, the emoticon in question is a sad face, and the person is feeling sad. If a person is frowning, they feel angry, or displeased, or arguably puzzled, but displeasure is the main emotion I associate with frowning.

    Do Americans, perhaps, associate frowning with feeling sad?

  35. Mrs Redboots, I obviously can't speak for everyone, but to me (CanE) a frown isn't associated with only one thing: it can be sadness, anger, disappointment, etc -- it's all dependent on context. I suppose if I had to do a pure word association, I'd pair "frown" with "sad" rather than "angry", but if someone were frowning out of anger, that would still make perfect sense to me.

    I second Tobias' comment about frown lines: I'd also place the frown at the mouth and frown lines on the forehead, along with a smile/laugh at the mouth and laugh lines around the eyes.

    Dick Hartzell said phrases like frown of concentration suggest "an entire gestalt of the face: lips pursed, eyes narrowed, brows furrowed. ... To attach frown to the forehead alone strikes me as a ridiculous reduction." I don't disagree about the imagery, but it doesn't change my definition of a frown. In my vocabulary, a frown is a downturned mouth. A smile is an upturned mouth. People are emotive, and genuine expressions are invariably accompanied by other facial cues (e.g. a smile that doesn't include any other part of the face looks forced), but those other cues don't define the frown or smile.

  36. For what it's worth, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives:

    frown (v.)
    "contract the brows as an expression of displeasure," late 14c., from Old French frognier "to frown or scowl, snort, turn up one's nose" (preserved in Modern French refrogner), related to froigne "scowling look," probably from Gaulish *frogna "nostril" (compare Welsh ffroen "nose"), with a sense of "snort," or perhaps "haughty grimace."

    That suggests that at least originally it was interpreted as an upper facial expression.

  37. A fascinating find, and it's interesting to see that people who only know one meaning are amazed to discover the other one. To me (63, originally BrE but many years in Canada) a frown is a thing you do with your forehead, and denotes anger, disapproval, concentration or puzzlement rather than sadness. Like others who have commented, I don't have a specific word for the downward mouth thing. What about the expression "to frown on" meaning to disapprove of? I never thought of this as specifically BrE, but maybe it is.

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  39. Mrs Redboots, as an American, I definitely associate frowning with sadness. Particularly a frowny face - that is definitely sad. In the UK, do they ever have the pain chart in doctors' offices where it uses smiley faces, and the greater the pain, the greater the sadness? Something like this.

    But it would also be perfectly normal and reasonable to have someone frown in displeasure, for example when you find your 3-year-old coloring on the walls.

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  42. Born in the UK, spent last two decades in the US, now in my early 40s. Until today, I had no idea that "frown" meant anything other than a furrowed forehead.

    The emotions I associate with frowning are disapproval and frustration, not sadness.

  43. Lynne's finding inspired me to do a little random web research:

    A Google image search for "frown lines" (apparently something people want to get rid of) overwhelmingly shows the forehead. Although there are many non-US sites in the list, there are also several based in the USA.

    However, a straight Image search for "frown" favo(u)rs the lips over the brows.

    Despite this, there are still plenty of US news sources who apparently adhere to the "brow" meaning of frown.

    The urban legend about requiring 65 muscles to frown and fewer (often 13) to frown goes back to at least 1920, and was used a lot in advertising. This American cartoon from 1948 could support either interpretation of "frown".

  44. Incidentallly, the aforementioned cartoon could explain "turn your frown upside down", from the point of view of either meaning of "frown", since when the cartoon is inverted, what were formerly lines on the forehead become lines of a smiling face.

  45. The OED entry for the noun frown has not yet been revised. For the actual gesture it gives only this definition

    1. A wrinkled aspect of the brow; a look expressive of disapprobation or severity, occas. of deep thought or perplexity. Also, the habit of frowning.

    I go along with this (presumably) old-fashioned summary, except that I think the 'of deep thought or perplexity' sense is not occas. but really frequent.

    They represent the noun as derived from the verb frown, which also has not been revised. As an intransitive verb they give these senses

    a. intr. To knit the brows, especially by way of expressing displeasure or (less frequently) concentration of thought; to look sternly. Said also of the brow. †Also (rarely), to sneer.

    b. Of inanimate things: To present a gloomy or threatening aspect.

    a. To express disapprobation or unfriendliness by a stern look. Const. at, on, upon. Also in indirect passive.

    b. attributed to inanimate objects.

    This also accords with my (?old-fashioned BrE) usage, except that the 'concentration of thought' sense seems more common than they suggest. Sense 2a is followed by a number of prepositions. In my speech the proposition must be on or upon — the choice being determined by the resulting rhythm

    I agree whole heartedly with Mrs Redboots. In our version of BrE frown is never associated with sadness.

    Up till now, whenever I've read of somebody frowning over distressing news, I've pictured the recipient with a furrowed brown concentrating on the implications of the news. If the text didn't mention news, I mentally supplied it as the cause of distress.

    It's worth quoting from the verb 1a section because of both the eminence the writer and the pertinence of what he was writing about.

    1872 C. Darwin Expression Emotions Man & Animals ix. 223 A man who joined us, and who could not conceive what we were doing, when asked to listen, frowned much, though not in an ill temper.

  46. As for an emoji for old-style BrE frown, the best candidates I can see are

    �� Angry face Unicode U+1F620
    �� Persevering face Unicode U+1F623

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  48. In my browser, those emoticons display in the editing pages pf Blogger but not in the published post. To view them, see the first and fourth items in the third row of this table (click).

  49. Nick Z
    Count me as another SBE-speaker, 34, who is astonished to discover that 'frown' can primarily refer to the lips (and that my non-native speaker wife, largely brought up in American educational contexts, thinks it's the lips).

    But: I have to say I find all the references to furrowed foreheads etc. confusing - I take frown to refer to a lowering of the eyebrows (like the 4th and 5th sad faces - as I would call them - of Grace's pain chart) in anger, displeasure, concentration etc. And this causes my forehead to be smoother, by making the skin more taut. It's when I raise my eyebrows, e.g. in surprise or disapproval that I get a furrowed brow. Have I been frowning wrong all these years?

    1. To my mind the term 'furrowed' can only refer to the vertical lines above the nose that look like furrows in a ploughed field. The horizontal botoxable wrinkles of surprise look nothing like furrows - not straight enough, and seldom deep enough to be more than wrinkles.

      Other than that, as a Brit (72, London) forehead (rhymes with horrid) only; never sad, always puzzled, perplexed, disapproving or concentrating.

  50. Nick Z - What I (UK, nearly 65) call a frown involves the eyebrows being drawn down and together so that the middle of the forehead puckers up, so 'frown lines' are vertical creases above the nose.
    It's certainly news to me that a downturned mouth could be described as a frown. I have the misfortune that my mouth is slightly downturned in repose, so I look glum when I think I have a neutral expression!

  51. Irish in my 30s and a frown is absolutely a forehead expression. Some people blow a ton of money on Botox to get rid of frown lines on their forehead!

    I would never ever consider a frown to be a mouth thing because in reality there is no natural facial expression that involves a down turned mouth. The mouth associated with a frown will be either a straight line or pursed, a down turned mouth is a totally unnatural shape for the mouth to be in. A down turned mouth can only be a pictorial representation, not an actual expression.

    Actually I've just figured that the only down turned mouths I can think of are biting in to a lemon or some other variety of 'ewwww'. Those are expressions of disgust, not frowns.

  52. AmE
    When I frown
    Brows go down

    Oh, wait: there's no poem contest associated with this post?

    Anyway, I've lived in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Virginia, and I always took "frown" to mean something on the forehead, especially the eyebrows. And if someone says I'm frowning, I'll sometimes answer, "No, I'm exercising my face."

  53. I've been in the US (coming from Russia) since 1995, New Jersey area. I've always heard the frown as a mouth gesture. However, I agree with Jay Fay in that a downturned mouth is just a pictorial representation, so a frown on a real person would not literally look like a "sad face", but does describe a literal sad face.

  54. Frownies, stick-on nighttime facial pads, were created in 1889 by the American, Margaret Kroesen, to smooth forehead wrinkles and crow's feet. They are manufactured by the B&P Company, based in Dayton, Ohio, who also produce Wrinkies to address deep lines around the mouth.

  55. Boris Zakharin

    My wife came from Russia to Britain in 1971 and has been in a BrE-speaking environment ever since, even when we were living overseas. When asked what she understood by frown she made the gesture so well described by Kate Bunting.

    In Russian, she says, this is хмуриться. I can't ask her what the Russian is for new-style AmE frown because neither of us knows what it looks like.

  56. Lynne, if you have AmE expressions for a British frown, I suppose we Brits must try to reciprocate. Personally, I can only draw on

    verb pull a face

    noun a face like death warmed up

  57. BrEng speaker in my 60s. I agree with what Mrs Redboots, David Crosby and others have said.

    I've also never heard the phrase "turn that frown upside down". It is sufficiently annoying that I'd have remembered it if I had.

    Although the 'sad face' emoticon seems to convey a universal sad message, is it actually possible to move ones mouth into that position? As a genuine human expression might it not be an urban myth which takes its value simply from being the visual opposite of a smile?

  58. As a non-native speaker who's never lived in an English-speaking country, but was taught British English in school, being in my 20s and living my life on the internet sure hadn't helped me – this is the first time I realized frowning is something you can do with your mouth.

  59. Dru:

    Of course a mouth can make that shape. For example (and don't say I didn't warn you):

    A common expression around here (AmE, Midwest), is "resting bitch face", which is applied to people who look mean or are frowning all the time. And not just women, either.

  60. Yeah, but in practice (as shown in the Trump picture), that exaggerated downturned mouth thing just looks petulant, not sad.

    As a Canadian, I never even imagined that people thought frowns were in the mouth. Frowning is a full face emotion that involves the mouth to some extent but without the forehead/brow furrowing, it's not a frown. I wonder. Is it just that word that has such different geographical/generational interpretations? Or the whole facial expression? Do people who think a frown is a downturned mouth think a scowl is as well, or do they see those as two different expressions?

  61. Of course a mouth can make that shape. For example (and don't say I didn't warn you):

    Excellent, very topical choice of image, there, Kirk. Bravo! (And is there any doubt that's a frown?)

  62. Britishish, 40's. I had no idea the 'sadface' emoticon was referred to as a frowny face by ANYBODY. A frown has nothing to do with sadness and is definitely a forehead thing.

  63. I (an aging Brit)am surprised, too, to hear of "frown" referring to the lips, but also by some of the uses of other words by commenters, specifically: "laughter lines" round the mouth -- to me they spread from the edge of the eyes and are also known as "crows' feet"; pout as a downturned mouth -- to me it involves not a downturn of the mouth, but a pushing out of the lips (sexy) or just the lower lip (sulking). However, I see from the Cambridge Dictionary that AmE doesn't seem to have the "sexy" pout. I wonder if that's because the word doesn't cover the expression in the US or if it's just not sexy there?

  64. CanE 40
    Forehead with a heavy dose of eyebrows.
    I've always thought of the emoticon as a sad face.

  65. 49 years old, from West Virginia, and "frown" has only meant the mouth. I would have never thought "forehead," not once, not ever.

    I just asked my wife, who is also 49 but grew up mostly in Champaign, IL (though both her parents were from Nashville TN), and she thought about it and said "all over your face, but mostly the forehead."

  66. 45 years from NJ and Tenn. Always thought it was mouth. My 70+ Mom and her sisters (born and raised in Philadelphia, PA) all think it is the mouth. I would never have guessed this is a change from the last 100 years, but based on the anecdotal evidence, it clearly is.

    To the extent a "stiff upper lip" is an actual Br facial expression, maybe they actually don't frown with their lips?

  67. As a Canadian in my mid-fifties, I have always thought that a frown was a forehead move although the lips might move as well. My daughter in her mid twenties agrees. To me a furrowed brow expresses concern while a frown expresses unhappiness or dissatisfaction with a situation.

  68. Swede, mid-thirties, always thought it was the forehead. (We're taught BE in school, but out cultural context is more AE.) My husband (Swede, mid-forties) didn't know, and thought about both, but he's really, really bad at reading facial expressions.

  69. Dick Hartnell

    And is there any doubt that's a frown?

    There most certainly is!

    It's nothing whatsoever like a frown!

    I'm coming to the conclusion that frown is two completely different words denoting two completely different facial gesture expressing two completely different emotions.

  70. I believe the emoji for the British sense of frown is ಠ_ಠ

  71. Oh my God, I'm frowning so much reading this!!! I'm blown away that anyone thinks a frown has anything to do with the mouth or sadness. It's the forehead only - from disbelief, frustration, annoyance. I'm British and 45, brought up here. A downturned mouth emoji is a sad face. Nothing to do with a frown - that emoji would be a face with downturned lines across the forehead (\/ above the eyes perhaps, although less slanted). I asked my husband, who was brought up in the US, to British parents, what he thought a frown was, and to my utter dismay he turned his mouth downwards. We've been together 9 years and I had no idea he had this different interpretation. Why would my mother have said "don't frown"? And what are frown lines if not the creases on one's forehead. I'm a little bit devastated by the total weirdness of the revelation that the Americans have a totally different meaning to a word that has no doubt in my mind what it means!!
    Just look at the picture of the frowning face in this wikipedia article - not a frown in sight!

  72. As a young Brit (about to turn 20, native to the Brighton area), I would think of a frown in the 'American' sense. Unsure whether this is because of emojis - I have only been using them for a couple of years and am pretty sure I considered a frown a sad thing before that. It may be the 'turn your frown' expression that did it.

    Either way I would expect some forehead action of annoyance etc. but would associate it with a sad face first and foremost.

  73. My Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998) (the self-proclaimed "foremost authority on current Canadian English") has both eyebrow and mouth definitions (plus other senses). A Canadian with English parents I would have said yeah frown means a lot more than just a down turned mouth or sadness, but that is the first thing that pops into my head...

    Note that the phrase "Turn that frown upside down" is easy to track in Google books and apparently goes back at least to 1931 with the song "Turn that frown upside down, smile at the cock-eyed world." by Joe Young. Also, why do all these people for whom the phrase makes so little sense just let it pass by without thinking or asking how a frown upside down could be a smile? Could the phrase have been a really forced metaphor (it rhymed) that help induce a change in meaning????

  74. Zouk Delors, in Can/AmE, we call laughter lines around the eyes crows feet too ("laughter lines"=positive, "crows' feet"=connotations of being older and tired).

    Regarding the pout, I (Canadian, 26) would agree with your lip definition. While I think a person could be pouting while frowning (i.e. downturned mouth; to me the verb pout is as much behavioral as physical), as a noun "pout" is definitely pushing out the (usually just lower) lip. I think the "sexy pout" being absent from AmE in the Cambridge dictionary is just an oversight rather than indicative of a lack of universality. Absent of context, I would jump to the regular rather than sexy definition of the word, but I'm certainly familiar with the use of pout to mean lips pursed in a suggestive way.

  75. Throwing in another younger group: I'm an American (~20) and I never knew until reading this post that a frown could be anything but the shape your lips make when you're sad, like in a frowny face :C. I asked my English boyfriend (~23) where a frown was and he said "my eyebrows". I've never heard even older people in my area/family refer to anything but that lip motion as a "frown", so I think it may be something that changed at different times/speeds in different regions of the US if any other Americans used it that way.

  76. I'm 37 born/raised in the middle of the UK. A frown for me is the opposite of a smile - downturned mouth. Frown lines are on your forehead. A furrowed brow is on your forehead, the lines formed that crinkle your forehead to make furrows across or vertically. You can buy something called Frownies to get rid (theoretically) of frown lines!

  77. So interesting! I'm American. Grew up in rural Kansas/Missouri. Have lived in England, Detroit, NYC, Seattle, Los Angeles. This is the first time I've ever been told of the use of 'frown' dealing with the forehead.

  78. So interesting! I'm American. Grew up in rural Kansas/Missouri. Have lived in England, Detroit, NYC, Seattle, Los Angeles. This is the first time I've ever been told of the use of 'frown' dealing with the forehead.

  79. Always thought of a frown being mouth-related. Wonder when "turn a frown upside down" became usual, since it strongly implies the opposite of a smile. Certainly common by the time of its use in 1956 "A Star is Born"

  80. I think I'm a bit of an outlier here. I'm British, mid 30s, and primarily know the sad mouth meaning. It was the only meaning I knew as a child, but I've inferred the other meaning from reading books in which people frown in concentration.

  81. I'm 52 and Australian. I've only ever understood 'frown' as the 'furrowed brow' meaning, ie involving the forehead. Strange to think of it involving the mouth. Difficult to get your mouth into the 'sad face' emoticon position.

  82. In the U.S., young children commonly do activities where they draw lines between opposite words/ideas from one column to another. Almost every one of those activities will have "smile" with a :) in one column and "frown" with a :( in the other column--that they're expected to match. U.S. children are TAUGHT that the words (smile/frown), emotions (happy/sad), and expressions ( :) / :( ) are opposites.

  83. 40 year old New Zealander - only new the down turned mouth meaning until reading

  84. 48 year old english speaking Canadian. I've heard furrowed brow but have never, ever considered a frown anything other than the opposite of a smile.

    Also, the >:( emoji makes sense to me as a frown but wouldn't like this >:) as it's the mouth that's doing the frowning and the forehead is irrelevant. Further, though >:( makes sense to me, I cannot for the life of me imagine a real person doing that with their forehead. Trying to do it now, I can't seem to do it.

  85. Laura

    Yes, I agree with your description of the connotations of "crows'feet" and "laughter lines" (I would never use the former when addressing the owner!).

    Your use of "pursed" sent me scurrying to the dictionary where I found I was apparently wrong to imagine this referred to lips tightly closed (with little or no vermillion showing). I would use "puckered lips" where you say "pursed". So, thanks!

  86. I'm Australian and aged 40. I've always thought of a frown as a downturned mouth, the opposite of a smile. Like a smile, the whole face (eyes, brows etc) can get involved, but it's primarily a mouth thing. A downturned mouth without a furrowed brow is still a frown, but a furrowed brow without a downturned mouth is not.

  87. So what is a frown? And what is it to frown?

    I've previously written of a gesture and of expression and of emotions. On reflection, I suspect all three words are far from ideal.

    There are clearly two faces:

    • one resulting from 'drawing the eyebrows down and together' (thanks to Kate Bunting!)

    • one resulting from pulling down the edges of the mouth

    In my vocabulary, the first is a frown (the original meaning of the word, not that it proves anything). The second is a scowl, or possibly a grimace. Or perhaps it's the state of being down in the mouth.

    Both faces can be signs of mental states. But a sign is not necessarily a conscious signal (or even an unconscious signal). And a mental state is not necessarily an emotion.

    For me the first face, the one many Brits still call a frown, is the reflex of a refusal to engage.

    • a directed frown reflects the mindset 'I'm not speaking to you'. The mindset may result from disapproval of something the other party has done or is currently doing. Or it may result from irritation at perceived interference.

    • an undirected frown reflects the mindset 'I'm not speaking to anyone. I'm thinking'. The mindset is concentration or at any rate an attempt or a desire to concentrate.

    When we observe this type of frown,

    1 we first judge whether it's directed at us or relates to the world in general

    2 we then infer from the context why the frowner is refusing to engage.

    These two judgments may lead to interpretations such as 'He's angry with me' or 'She seems to have a lot on her mind'. OK the frowner may intend that interpretation to be made. But I maintain that often the frowner has no such intention — perhaps, even, no realisation that they're frowning.

    The second face, the one I call a scowl or a grimace is problematic for me. A page of google imagesfor frown is (almost exclusively) full of faces clearly not directed at me, and with no obvious clue to whether they're directed at anybody. Not is there any context from which I can infer why they're pulling that particular face. Well OK, that picture of scowling Donald Trump contains the clue that he's Donald Trump. So I can use what I think I know about him as a basis for guessing what's on his mind. However, what i know about Barack Obama doesn't help me interpret what I would describe as a picture of him grimacing.

    This reliance on contextual clues may explain why we can read a text containing the word frown and understand it each in our own way, whatever our dialect. The surrounding text generally tells us whether the face it targeted or scattergun, and state (or at least implies) the mindset of the 'frowner'. That we may picture a different face from that intended by thew writer is neither here nor there.

  88. 60 year old US native, and like most of the Americans who have replied, to me a frown is an expression of the mouth, with the corners turned down. Also like almost everyone who has responded here, I'm astonished to discover that there is a completely different meaning on the other side of the pond.

    But I'm even more astonished to read the comments by Jay Fay, with agreement from Bori Zakharin and Dru, who claims that "there is no natural facial expression that involves a down turned mouth". If you look at Google Images for "frown", there are hundreds of photos of people with down turned mouths. A variety of emotions are expressed; some show sadness, some show disgust, some show anger or resolve, etc. But I'm baffled as to how a human being in any country can believe that a down turned mouth is not a natural facial expression. Surely British people use the same facial expressions as those of us in the US, even if they have different names for them?


  89. 55 y.o. New Yorker here, definitely always associated frowning with the mouth, opposite of smile, downturned corners, Trump's resting face.

    Never before have I come across any indication that anyone in the world associated the term with a furrowed brow.

    AFAIC the term *always* denotes unhappiness, irritation, frustration etc, never concentration.

  90. Salutations, Dr. Murphy, and gentlefolk,

    In my mid-60's, grew up in suburban Philadelphia. Have always understood 'frown' as meaning 'turned-down mouth, expression of displeasure', and 'furrowed brow' or 'knit brow' to describe 'expression of intense concentration'.

    Will have to keep this in mind, next time I'm reading 'English' prose.

    Makes me feel I've been slightly enlightened today.

  91. Well, I'm completely confused - I'm British, but I've always thought it was predominantly the mouth that was frowning, even before I moved to the US. A quick survey of my friends and relatives shows I was alone in this, so I have no idea where I got that idea from. Since I'm now in the US though, I guess it made me sort of right all along.

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  94. @AllanO

    And almost as soon as the song "Turn that frown upside down" was published (copyright July 14, 1931), it was being reused in newspaper advertisements.

  95. @JAFD
    Re: reading English prose
    Yes, this does put a new spin on things. Just by coincidence today I was rereading The Lord of the Rings and came across this description of the Pillars of Argonath:

    "Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone: still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North."

    I'd always taken this to mean that they had an American frown; that is, downturned mouths. But clearly Tolkien meant the word in the British sense, amplifying the "crannied brows" description.


  96. Rereading this, I just realized that in connection with "frowning over his work" I would associate this with both the furrowed brow and the downturned mouth together.

    However when it comes to children, I think of a frown as definitely a downturned mouth, the expression you get when one of them is truly unhappy with your choice, an expression somewhere worse than a pout but when they're not quite ready yet to throw a full tantrum yet. I would put the girl in the meme known as Royal Wedding Girl in this catagory.

    I definitely think of a frown in connection with unhappiness (which embraces both displeasure and sadness) unless there are other indications to give me connotation of puzzlement, concentration or anger, or when one of these is explicitly stated. I think this actually has sometimes caused me a bit of a hiccup when I was reading a British novel because the wording sounded odd somehow (why is he frowning at these happy choices?) but it was so small I just skipped over it without really thinking about it.

    I think of a pout as that pushed out bottom lip that you get from an unhappy, sometimes angry, sometimes just stubborn, 3-year-old. Adults only do it in fun (Can I have a whiskey? I'll pout....) and teens tend to just slam into their bedrooms or out the front door.

    I do know the sexy pout reference, though there always seems to be something either slightly sarcastic or else exaggerated when I hear that. It's really hard to explain what I mean by that, but it doesn't seem to be something used when someone is sincerely complimenting someone's looks, whether they're being formal and saying "she's beautiful" or slangy and saying "what a babe!"

    And I'm with Zouk Delors, I've always pictured pursed lips as closed together in a tight line, that sour "I just bit into a lemon and I disapprove completely, but I'm a polite, oh-ever-so polite person and so I'm not saying anything and you better well know just how much I disapprove even though I'm not saying so!" look.

    There is some mouth expression that I run across in books and it has never seemed to fit what I picture, but at moment I can't for life of me think what it is. If I can come up with it, I'll add it to the discussion because it's rather pertinent; it's something where I picture the mouth going one way and I get the impression the author (all the author's actually) are picturing exactly the opposite.

  97. Markn

    Surely British people use the same facial expressions as those of us in the US, even if they have different names for them?

    Somewhere in my latest — and regrettable lengthy — posting, I suggested scowl or grimace
    or looking down in the mouth.

    But no, I don't think we use the same expressions as you — at least not in the same proportions. We often frown in our own way, but seldom scowl yours.

  98. I find that hard to believe without further evidence. My understanding is that there is a large body of research showing that human facial expressions are universal across all cultures.

  99. Hello again,

    Would say 'Royal Wedding Girl' was definitely frowning (and I hope everyone forgets that and she goes on to live long happy life)

    Second, in the world I grew up in, 'frown lines' accumulated around the mouth and cheeks over the years, while crevices upon forehead would be 'worry lines' or 'care lines' or 'fret lines'

    Lord willing and the creeks don't rise, hope to visit the UK sometime in this winter or spring, will probably find myself further befuddled or bemused.

  100. That emoji looks like a 'sadface' to me (BrE) and on a child I would call that expression a 'sulk' - or for an adult, 'down in the mouth' or 'face as long as a fiddle' expression.

    The point about facial expressions, surely, is that they are mobile - we have all observed that a smile evolves, starting in the mouth and then using cheeks, eyes, eyebrows (that's how we can distinguish a 'real' smile from a 'social' smile).

    So a sulk or a frown of disapproval may each involve a down-turned mouth AND furrowed brow at different points in the expression of the emotion - the emoji or emoticon is a snapshot. This is why those psychology surveys that use still photographs to test one's perceptions of emotions seemed doomed to failure - in real life, our faces flicker as each muscle is used in series.

    In fact, the frown of concentration is notably different because the face is actually rigid, and retains the same expression for an extended period. I call this the 'cutting paper' face: a friend concentrates by sticking out her tongue, my husband purses his lips into a raspberry shape, and I probably grit my teeth while my lips appear relaxed. But the eyes and forehead remain fixed on the job in hand.

  101. Dark Star, JAFD

    No, for me 'Royal Wedding Girl' is definitely NOT frowning.

    It's hard to put a name to the face on such a young child because clearly her emotional state is not something regularly experienced by an adult observer. The best description I can think of is tired and sulky. If I knew less of the context I might say grumpy.

  102. markn

    My understanding is that there is a large body of research showing that human facial expressions are universal across all cultures.

    Two arguments:

    1. No body of research can be big enough to prove that something is universal. Just one counter-example disproves the hypothesis.

    2. Even if the down-in-the-mouth face is part of a universal repertoire, that's not to say that consciousness of it is universal.

    I was watching a programme last night that made interesting comparisons between spontaneous laughter and simulated laughter. It occurs to me that both types of frown can be simulated. We can pretend to be displeased or exaggerate our displeasure. Similarly, we can pretend to be intensely concentrating or exaggerate the intensity. The pretence may be intended to mislead or it may be ironic.

    When we Brits (or older Brits) wish to simulate a genuine frown, we draw down our eyebrows. The other face, the one I call a scowl , is not something we simulate — at least not with any specific communicative intent; if I put on a scowl, it's probably to amuse.

    By contrast you North Americans (and some younger Brits) use that down-in-the-mouth face as something that may be simulated as well as spontaneous. From the postings, it seems that at least some North Americans do pull the eyebrows face spontaneously but don't use it as a simulation.

    Perhaps the simulated frown is the origin of another important difference. The face that the whole English speaking world used to call a frown and we Brits still do was originally, I suppose, a spontaneous reflex of displeasure. But then North American culture seized on the idea of a reversible frown. If you turn that frown upside down, you produce a simulated smile. If the difference between a frown and a smile is manipulable, any simulator finds it easiest to concentrate on mouth shape as the thing to manipulate.

    For us older Brits, by contrast, there is no opposition between a frown and a smile; they're different, of course, but unrelated. So if we want to simulate sadness it never occurs to us to simulate a frown.

  103. Re Royal Wedding Girl, I notice the text at the link describes the expression first as a "pout" and only later as a "frown".

    David Crosbie

    Interesting point about the "simulated frown". I have been thinking about a facial expression with the brow lowered and (possibly) mouth turned down, but with amusement in the eyes -- as for example when: a child in your care does something naughty yet amusing; a joke tickles you despite your disapproval of some element of it; your opponent in a board game makes a clever move you grudgingly admire. I don't know any single word to describe this expression. I thought of a "mock frown" but in fact the emotion causing the frown could be as genuine as the amusement.

    Btw, it's nice to hear nothing ever makes you scowl except in jest!

  104. LIke so many people, amazed by the difference in meaning across the Atlantic (UK and frowns are associated with foreheads). I can state (based on the affective interaction module of my MSc) that there very definitely is NOT a large body of research showing that expressions are the same across all cultures. There is a large body of research showing that there are either five or six expressions that are culture independent. Everything else isn't.

  105. @markn,
    I did an image search for "frown" and the ones that show an actual human face (not a symbol or cartoon) either don't look sad to me or their mouth isn't actually downturned.

    Regarding scowl and grimace, the former to me refers to an expression of displeasure or anger at someone (usually intentional), while the latter refers to "making a face" expressing disgust at something.

  106. Rachel Ganz said
    There is a large body of research showing that there are either five or six expressions that are culture independent.

    Seven I think, and sadness is one of them. Look at the picture of "sadness" in this brief published by the American Psychological Association, which includes the down turned mouth that Americans call a "frown":

    This article also mentions "over 75 studies" that have shown that these seven expressions are produced universally, and says "These findings are impressive given that they have been produced by different researchers around the world in different laboratories using different methodologies with participants from many different cultures but all converging on the same set of results." In a soft science like psychology it's hard to get a more definite result than this.

  107. There is a large body of research showing that there are either five or six expressions that are culture independent. Everything else isn't.

    This discussion appears to be fatally culture bound. I Googled "facial expression" and came across this presentation on the American Psychological Association website titled "Reading facial expressions of emotion". I haven't read the article but I assume it was spurred by the growth in autism -- since (as I understand it) a hallmark of the condition is an inability to read and respond appropriately to common facial expressions.

    The article claims "there is strong evidence for the universal facial expressions of seven emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise". Gird your loins, Britons: the photograph illustrating sadness shows a man with a downturned mouth.

  108. Ugh -- my apologies. I'd forgotten that the key word here is frown and whether said frown denotes sadness or something else. So the only relevant question is whether the sad man depicted in the photograph could be said to be frowning. To that question I'll throw my hat in the ring with the British contingent and say NO.

    Wasn't it a Brit who said "I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself!"

  109. No again. It wasn't a Brit. It was the very un-British Walt Whitman. I should quit while I'm behind.

  110. Early 30's from Ottawa, Canada. Frown to me was always the mouth and only the mouth. I would use "furrowed brow" to describe the forehead action.
    "Frowny face" for me was always about the mouth action thus :( is a frowny face and >:( is just an angry face.

    In literature, including British literature, I still assumed "he frowned" was about the mouth but you can infer a lot about a person's whole facial expression from the context so even though I might have pictured a furrowed brow, it's not what I thought the words were directing me to see.

  111. To me, late 40s, Western US: "A frown" is the mouth thing. When one actually frowns, the whole face can participate. "Frown upon" means 'disapprove,' and has nothing to do with sadness.
    When I use the :( emoji, I may mean sadness or disappointment.

  112. I'm 46, American, born and raised in Arizona. In my world, a frown absolutely and completely means "turned down corners of the mouth." It cannot possibly be anything else. Imagine my surprise when I called my sister and asked her "Where on your face is a frown?" She thought about for a minute, and said, "Your forehead." Both of our minds are totally blown.

  113. I'm 22, as English as they come, and have only ever heard of it as the mouth movement! This is bizarre.

  114. I'm 28 years old, from Vermont, and to me, although the natural expression of frowning involves the whole face, the definitive feature is the mouth, and it is definitely about sadness. My slightly older sister confirms.

    However, my friend from California, 26, immediately said forehead/eyebrows.

  115. I'm British, in my 50s, and for me a frown is definitely a brow movement with expression in the eyes and not necessarily connected to a mouth movement at all. My very internet connected children in their mid to late 20s understand it to mean the same. And like many other Brits the icon picture is a sad face, the opposite of the smiley/happy face.

  116. I'm a 59 year old, well educated and widely read Brit (but regular visitor to the USA) and I have NEVER considered that a frown could be anything other than forehead expression. I am astonished to read that anyone (even Americans) could consider that a downturned mouth could be a frown.

  117. What a very interesting post - I had no idea that there were two different ways to understand the word 'frown'.

    I'm English, aged 49, and have always known the 'forehead' meaning. It never occurred to me that anyone could frown with anything *other* than the eyebrows.

    I now live in France. The French have two ways of saying 'to frown': either you use 'froncer les sourcils' (which literally translates as 'to gather the eyebrows'), or you use the verb 'sourciller' (which I guess literally translates as 'to eyebrow'). So no chance of either of those meanings being associated with the mouth.

    And the Emoji with a downturned mouth is a 'sad' emoji. It's not frowning.

  118. Fascinating, as the expressionless Mr. Spock might have it. I am in my 50s, from California, lived in England (Durham and Brighton) much of adult life, now in Canada. For me a frown has always and only meant a downturned mouth, seen mainly in caricatures or cartoons. When I read literary passages in which 'she frowned...' it has always irritated me because hardly anyone can actually (mouth) frown in real life. (My daughter is one who can, and she can also scallop her tongue and wrap her legs around her neck, so it is just one more unusual ability.) Suddenly I am able to forgive a whole tranche of English writers for making their characters display an expression i previously thought rightly belonged only to Disney and Hanna-Barbera.

  119. I see several of the forehead-frown comments say that the emoji with the down-turned mouth is not frowning but rather is expressing sadness. In my 56 American years a frown (down-turned mouth) has always been used to show sadness whether it's on someone's face or in a drawing. Now I'm uncertain what the forehead frown is supposed to signify. I'm even more perplexed by those here who say it is unusual for a person to actually frown with their mouth. Baffling!

  120. Here's an American example of "frown" meaning "sad face" from 1911: it's a description of an electrical device which can alternate between a happy "smile" and a sad "frown", including an illustration that leaves no doubt what is meant.

    Link to Popular Electricity magazine, December 1911.

    Does anyone have any earlier clear example of "frown" meaning "sad face"?

  121. @Jane Elizabeth

    For those of use who associate frowning with the forehead, the gesture usually expresses disapproval, frustration, or concentration.

  122. This is fascinating. Although I'm an American born and raised, up until a few weeks ago I think I would have had no question that frowning involved mainly the brow (though I do call that emojii a "frowny face" so maybe it would have to involve both brow and mouth). But just a few weeks ago the difference popped up quite clearly. In my lab we are running a study in which we measure some responses from facial muscles, including the corrugator supercillii (located sort of between the eyebrows) which I learned (from American sources) to refer to as the "frown muscle" in contrast to the zygomaticus in the cheek which is often called the "smile muscle" (and which we also record). During calibration, I kept asking the participant (an American) to alternately smile and frown - and only got zygomatic activity, never corrugator. It was only after a colleague (also American) asked the participant to *scowl* and then smile that we got what we were looking for.

  123. A quick Google for dictionary (American and English) definitions gives the following, none of which mentions the mouth:

    Merriam-Webster: to contract the brow in displeasure or concentration.

    MacMillan: to move your eyebrows down and closer together because you are annoyed, worried, or thinking hard.

    Cambridge: to bring your eyebrows together so that lines appear on your face above your eyes, in an expression of anger, disapproval, or worry.

    Oxford: Furrow one’s brow in an expression of disapproval, displeasure, or concentration.

  124. 50 year old, New Zealand woman here. I definitely think of that emoticon as 'sad face' and have thought of the >:-( as more frown-like.
    Frown to me has always meant the furrowed brow type expression.

    I am quite familiar with "turn that frown upside down" but never thought in depth about what was meant by frown in that case. I suspect that is mostly because the expression irritates me the same way being told to 'Smile' does in general. I think I usually hear that saying from the same people who are always telling others to smile. The likely result is for me to intensify the frown.

  125. SpecsChic -- it is interesting to me to hear that you never really thought about how "turning that frown upside down" means nothing if frowns are on the forehead.

    Looking at the issue from the other side, I'm sure I have read a thousand times about people "frowning in concentration" and it never even crossed my mind that my mouth doesn't turn down just because I am thinking hard. If I had thought of it at all, I think I would have regarded it as a meaningless idiom that just meant "concentrating really hard."

  126. The idea that strongly down turned lips are a completely artificial expression is unfounded. Think of babies, especially: one, two, and three.

    If you want another example of frowny-face indicating sadness, what about the Greek comedy/tragedy masks, especially the more stylized representations of them?

    And for the record, I'd agree with David Crosbie that Royal Wedding Girl has less of a frown and more of a grumpy-face. Or perhaps I'd call it a scowl.

  127. Perhaps the most significant contributions is this anonymous post form the 46-yearr-old Arizonan. Not just two speech communities, not just a couple of life partners, even two siblings can use the same word to denote two radically different faces with no perceptible failure of communication. (The strongest failure anybody has reported has been at the margins of literary interpretation). But language is communication. It's just not supposed to work like that.

    How do we square the circle? I just don't buy the thesis that a frown objectively incorporates (at least) two facial gestures, and that different features are salient to different speakers. My frown involves a completely neutral mouth, and I gather that for at least some upside-down-smile speakers the browns are similarly neutral.

    Let me push what I suggested earlier as the essence of a brow-frown. For me, it functions as a switch-off, a brake on any subsequent empathetic communication. It signals either 'I'm not speaking to you' or 'I'm not speaking to anybody'. This is perhaps too specific to account for a down-in-the-mouth frown, so let me generalise. Suppose that frown is an interactive device that functions as the opposite of a conversational ice-breaker. It freezes or keeps frozen the interactive flow of communication.

    Language teachers like me with an interest in linguistics are often attracted to the sort of linguists who are interested in communication. They in turn are often attracted to the sorts of sociologists and social anthropologists who are interested in language. And it's from a cultural anthropologist that we all get the notion of phatic communion. This is the use of word not to express anything, not to affect the thoughts or behaviour of anybody, not to convey any information whatsoever, but simply to establish a rapport to say, in effect, 'I'm here and listening, if you have anything to say'.

    I'm suggesting that — whatever its objective appearance and whatever the emotional back story — the function of a frown is to sever or prevent phatic communion.


  129. I realise that there's mismatch between what I believe a frown is and people's perception of what they are doing when they frown.i I think I may have sensed a resolution from the weird discipline of ethnomethodology.

    Now I don't pretend to understand the thing, and I can never be sure there isn't an element of self-parody in the literature. But I do see some merit in separating what an action is from the practical unthinking procedures that go into it. I'm thinking specifically of a paper entitled Notes on the art of walking. Perversely, it chooses to see walking in public places where others also walk as an ongoing achievement. It's easy to laugh at, and I'm not sure it isn't intended as a joke with a serious message. But, hey, let's try it out. Bear with me.

    Suppose that a frown functions as a phatic communion breaker, then frowning is the act of breaking. So maintaining a frown is the ongoing achievement of preventing and precluding phatic communion.

    Now lets suppose that doing frowning, as the ethnomethodolgits would describe it, is an unthinking practice triggered by certain emotions or mental states. The person doing frowning is aware of the emotion or mental state in question, so he or she reverses the motivation:
    • the trigger becomes the goal , the object of expression
    • the achievement becomes the resulting side-effect

    So, we all go around occasionally doing frowning for phatic-communion-breaking, and on that level it can be an ongoing achievement for as long as people keep away. If they say 'Lighten up!' or offer other (probable unhelpful and irritating) advice, then it's a failure. Success or failure I propose to call these responses frown uptake. At the same time there's a more conscious response which I'll call frown reading. This is our interpretation of the psychological motivation of the frowner.

    See this link supplied by Dick Hartzell (click). What it describes is face reading and how unskilled readers may be improved. Frown reading is one skill among other face reading skills.

  130. We talk about frowns and frowning as if the face was like a chunk of language something that we can decode and arrive at the same real as the original idea that the speaker/writer encoded.

    But it's not like that. A skilled face reader can only recognise the possible range of mental states behind the frown. Knowledge of the personality of the frowner and the circumstances of the frowning may allow more precision. And the reader is all too often the sole judge of his/her success.

    Typically we know that our frown uptake is or isn't appropriate. Good feedback from the frowner constitutes no feedback at all. (Like no news is good news). And we assume our frown reading is inaccurate unless (as rarely happens) the conversation goes on to prove otherwise. When both our uptake is appropriate and our reading is accurate, we can say that there is communication. If the uptake is appropriate but the reading is only approximate, there is still a feeling of communication.

    And, I suggest, it's this sort of feeling of communication that allows use to swap the word frown unspoken and written English even when the interacting parties use different visual clues (and possibly a different range of interpretations) in frown-reading.

    I say She frowned.
    You think you know exactly what I'm describing.
    Nothing in the context suggests otherwise.
    I may go on to describe the effects and the aftermath of her frowning.
    The narrative still make sense, so we both feel that we've communicated.
    We think we share a meaning of frown.
    We don't, but it doesn't seem to matter.

  131. @Anonymous

    Saying "The French have two ways of saying 'to frown': either you use 'froncer les sourcils' ... or you use the verb 'sourciller'..." only makes sense if you use the British English definition of frown. An American would not say that, but rather "The French have two ways of saying 'to scowl'...", since we mean something different by "frown". Those French words have no bearing on what "frown" means in (any variety of) English.

  132. I am Indian, so British English is the more common source for Indian English (though things are changing). I have however always associated frown with U-shaped mouth opposite to smile shape, never with a furrowed forehead. In fact, I was always perplexed till I came upon this post why someone commented on one of my pics that I have frown on there, though I am doing no U-shape of the mouth; now I realize! Since I do furrow my forehead a lot.
    It would be interesting to know what older Indians well versed in English think of 'frown'.

  133. I've had a few Indian replies on Twitter, and they've been in the forehead camp. Age might be related in any country, since the mouth meaning is so recent.

  134. @lynneguist:

    The mouth meaning is attested in AmE since 1911 (see earlier comment on this thread).

  135. "The French have two ways of saying 'to frown': either you use 'froncer les sourcils' (which literally translates as 'to gather the eyebrows'), or you use the verb 'sourciller' (which I guess literally translates as 'to eyebrow'). So no chance of either of those meanings being associated with the mouth."

    It's not unthinkable (to me, at least) that the word sourcils may one day be replaced by a different word for "eyebrows" (I take it we all agree on what that means?!). That would leave sourciller disconnected from any particular facial feature. It could then happen that the verb began to be understood differently, perhaps influenced by some facile rhyme based on a meaning of "downturned mouth". That could even lead to the then obsolete word, sourcils coming back into the language with the meaning "corners of the mouth"... and then, of course, a blogpost by a French linguist surprised to learn that some people think sourciller is something to do with the brow!

  136. @vp: I don't think the 1911 attestation contradicts my 'rather recent'. Language changes take time to move, and a non-obvious one like this is not going to spread like wildfire.

  137. 48-year-old Texan here, over a decade living in Indiana, and for me "frown" means the down-turned face.

    Regarding the "43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile," my favorite response used to be, "Don't bother me, I'm exercising my face," buit now I tend to repeat this:

  138. I am 54, raised in the South (of the US, that is) and for me, frowning is exclusively a feature of the brows and upper face. The mouth is generally not involved in frowning. To me, frowning is associated with concentration, annoyance, and/or anger. My mother always warned me that if I kept frowning, my face would freeze like that. Unfortunately, she was sort of right, as I am now afflicted with a permanent wrinkle in the center of my brow. Sadness is not something that I associate with frowning at all. I am not sure that I have ever seen a real person with an actual downturned mouth to the degree depicted by what I call the sad face emoji. The frowny face emoji for me has the furrowed brow and a straight line for the mouth. The emoji with the downturned mouth is the sad face.

  139. Going back to the emojis for a moment, I suspect that the :( got named a frowny for no better reason than that :) is called a smiley, after the Smiley Button. Calling it a saddy just doesn't work since that's an emotion, not an action, so didn't make a good opposite. In spite of that, it seems to be mostly used to convey sadness, only occasionally for displeasure.

    On another note, I think the phrase that always throws me is "his lips curled" -- I always associate it with sort of a smirking smile, the kind the villain of the piece uses when he's just gotten the upper hand for instance. But the context I get is I think authors are often thinking of a downturned mouth, what seems to fit the British image of a scowl or grimace if I'm following this right?

    I think of a grimace as separate from a frown in that it usually goes with pain, and occasionally with severe disgust. I think of a scowl as specifically associated with annoyance, and possibly outright anger.

  140. Dark Star
    Isn't the villain's "curled lip" a sneer, where the upper lip is raised on one side?

  141. Here's the second stanza of a poem by Tennyson called "Madeline". First things first: it's clear that Tennyson's notion of the frown revolves around the brow, because he brings it up himself in line 8. Still, from the very first line it's clear he counterposes smiling and frowning as opposites:

    Smiling, frowning, evermore,
    Thou art perfect in love-lore.
    Revealings deep and clear are thine
    Of wealthy smiles: but who may know
    Whether smile or frown be fleeter?
    Whether smile or frown be sweeter,
              Who may know?
    Frowns perfect-sweet along the brow
    Light-glooming over eyes divine,
    Like little clouds sun-fringed, are thine,
              Ever varying Madeline.
        Thy smile and frown are not aloof
          From one another,
          Each to each is dearest brother;
        Hues of the silken sheeny woof
          Momently shot into each other.
              All the mystery is thine;
        Smiling, frowning, evermore,
        Thou art perfect in love-lore,
              Ever varying Madeline.

    William Blake does much the same thing in a poem he literally titles "Smile and Frown":

    There is a smile of Love,
         And there is a smile of Deceit,
    And there is a smile of smiles
         In which the two smiles meet.

    And there is a frown of Hate,
         And there is a frown of Disdain,
    And there is a frown of frowns
         Which you strive to forget in vain,

    For it sticks in the heart's deep core
         And it sticks in the deep backbone.
    And no smile ever was smiled
         But only the smile alone

    (And 'twixt the cradle and grave
         It only once smiled can be),
    That when it once is smiled
         There's an end to all misery.

    Regardless of which brand of English we speak, I think we can all agree that smiling is done primarily with the mouth. So it doesn't seem much of a leap to me, if smiling and frowning are counterposed as opposites -- as they are in these two poems -- that the notion of frowning might (in one brand of English, anyway) gravitate away from the brow and be considered as simply the opposite of a smile.

  142. I now have a new understanding of the opening lines of the song "Young Americans" by David Bowie (appropriately enough, a song about Americans by a Briton).

    They pulled in just behind the bridge
    He lays her down, he frowns
    Gee my life's a funny thing, am I still too young?

    "Furrow of concentration" fits the following line better than "expression of sadness" does. (How did I interpret the song before? I guess I thought a frown sort of included both, but "sad expression with the mouth" was definitely the primary meaning.)

    Can anyone think of other stories, poems, or songs where you now realize the author's definition of frown was not the same as yours? The Tennyson and Blake poems are another good example - I think I have seen the Blake one before, and I definitely would have assumed he meant the mouth.

  143. P.S. The American Mormons seem to think a frown involves the forehead:

    (This is one of the very few forehead-based images that I could find for "frowning face" or "frowny face." I would have found the caption very strange before I read this post.)

    Bill Clinton is a real-life adult human who can pull off a good genuine frown in the mouth-y sense:

    Other pictures of real people labeled as frowns are often more straight than genuinely downturned - e.g., this woman here:

    1. Sorry for the very, very late reply, but I think the interpretation of the LDS children's image isn't right. The face is made so that you can rotate it from smiling to frowning. It's not smiling and frowning simultaneously. The curve on the forehead of the smiling version becomes the mouth on the frown. It's only on the forehead to make the rotation work. The song that goes with it is

  144. @Zouk That would actually pretty well describe it for me, a sneer, with a lip going up, at least on one side. And then the next sentence or two seem to always indicate the opposite and so I'm totally thrown by the description. Though it could be that I only notice the ones I'm thrown by, and read across the others.

    Back to the original subject, I've been paying attention to frowning people on television since this discussion came up and it seems that frowns almost always involve both the mouth and the forehead, no matter whether the person is frowning in unhappiness, displeasure, or concentration. This may be why there is the disconnect between the two meanings on either side of the Atlantic.

  145. @lynneguist, could you create a poll for your readers, where we could indicate which region we are from? I just polled my friends, and one from Wisconsin says eyebrows, a Californian says mouth, and the East Coasters say eyebrows. I grew up with East Coast parents in the Midwest, so I have always used it in the eyebrow sense, while my friends often used the mouth sense of the word.

    What an odd problem!

  146. I picked up another odd expression about expressions in an American book I just finished: 'He shrugged facially'. Used twice in the same book. To me, a shrug is all about the shoulders so this is a nonsensical sentence. I think I get what he means but I'd use words like sneer, grimace, frown, raise an eyebrow, which describe (to me) a facial expression, not shrug.

    1. I'd take that as an author's tic, rather than as an Americanism.

    2. Anonymous: I'll give you this: "shrugged facially" is singularly inelegant. I believe both Stephen King and Elmore Leonard have issued rules for writers, with King saying (if I remember right) "the adverb is not your friend" and Leonard offering (I looked it up) "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'…he admonished gravely."

    3. "... except when creating a Tom Swifty", said Tom, selfishly.

  147. I cannot go back to your Frownland

  148. Born and brought up in India. English medium education. Age 46. To me:

    A frown is what the forehead does while at the same time it is a facial (whole face) expression. Simply wrinkling up the brow doesn't make a frown. There are other expressions that include a wrinkled brow.

    Not entirely sure about the word "pout" but that, like the brow movement, is a part of many expressions including the frown. For me opposite of smile would be pout. Opposite of happy face is sad face. Opposite of smile face can be either frown face or sad face.

    Lived in "America" for more than half my life now. The reason for the quotes is the diversity of language (English) is so great that it is impossible to gauge (for me) what an "American" would say, definitively. My general impression is that the frown is not a politically correct expression here. Especially within a conversation. I don't think is true in "India" (as I know/knew it!).

    I wonder if experts have something to say about the politeness or political correctness of the frown?

  149. Frown is definitely mouth, indicating sadness. But I'm curious if younger people got that idea from the expression. I'm 30 (from NY) reading this in 2018 and never heard of anything but mouth + sadness.

    I always imagine it as like a sad lonely kid at camp and the counselor comes over and asks what's wrong and some encouragement goes on and finally he says to the camper, "let's turn that frown upside down!" And the camper smiles and runs off to join his friends.

    On the other hand, it may explain why my dad always asks me why I'm frowning when I'm staring into space. I am always confused by this question.

    People keep citing "frown lines" as if this is ultimate proof that a frown is on the forehead, but I've never in my life heard that expression.

    1. People keep citing "frown lines" as if this is ultimate proof that a frown is on the forehead, but I've never in my life heard that expression.

      You've never heard it because you're only 30. For you the processes of change from forehead-defined frown to mouth-defined frown and from severe/angry frown to to sad frown are complete. For some of us the changes never started.

  150. I'm an American in my early 20s. I've never in my life heard of "frown" used in the context of anything other than one's mouth. Very fascinating!


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