Q: I keep finding “smirk” used as a simple synonym for “smile.” How do you distinguish between these two words?
A: One can smile in a pleasant or an unpleasant way. A smirk is an unpleasant smile—irritatingly smug or affected, often with the lips crooked and closed.
Although a smirk is indeed a smile, we wouldn’t use the word “smirk” as a synonym for either the noun or the verb “smile.”
When “smile” is used without qualification, it suggests a pleasant smile, as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “she greeted us all with a smile” … “he smiled at Shelley.”
The dictionary says the noun and verb refer to a “pleased, kind, or amused facial expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.”
The word “smirk,” according to the dictionary, refers to “a smug, conceited, or silly smile.” It gives these examples for the noun and verb: “Gloria pursed her mouth in a self-satisfied smirk” … “he smirked in triumph.”
We’ve consulted half a dozen other standard dictionaries and all have similar definitions for “smirk.” But as you’ve noticed, “smirk” is sometimes used as a synonym for “smile.”
For example, the collaborative Urban Dictionary, with definitions written by readers, has a dubious April 12, 2014, contribution that defines “smirk” as “a smile that finds something funny, not necessarily in a scornful way.”
Interestingly, the verb “smirk” did indeed merely mean to smile when it showed up in Old English (as smearcian). The verb “smile” appeared several hundred years later in Middle English (smīlen).
The two words are ultimately derived from the same prehistoric root, reconstructed as smei- (to laugh or smile), according to The American Heritage Dictionary Indo-European Roots.
The earliest example for the verb “smirk” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of the Roman philosopher Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ: “Ða ongon he smearcian & cwæð to me” (“At this she began to smile and speak unto me”).
The verb “smirk” continued to mean “smile” in Old English (spoken from about 450 to 1150) and Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450). It wasn’t until the late 15th century (the early days of modern English) that “smirk” took on its negative sense.
The first negative OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from “The Thewis off Gud Women” (“The Virtues of Good Women”), an anonymous treatise written sometime before 1500:
“And our all thinge kep her in kirk / To kek abak, to lauch, or smyrke” (“And over all things let not herself in church / Peek backward, laugh, or smirk”). The treatise was published in an 1870 collection, Ratis Raving, and Other Moral and Religious Pieces, in Prose and Verse, edited by J. Rawson Lumby.
When the noun “smirk” showed up in the 16th century, the OED says, it meant (as it does now) an “affected or simpering smile; a silly, conceited, smiling look.” The dictionary’s first citation is from The Disobedient Child (1560), by the English dramatist Thomas Ingelend: “Howe many smyrkes, and dulsome kysses?”
The latecomer “smile” showed up in the early 14th century as a verb meaning “to give to the features or face a look expressive of pleasure or amusement, or of amused disdain, scorn, etc.” The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that may have been composed as early as 1300.
“ ‘Thar þe noght in hethyng smylle.’ Sco said, ‘for soth smild i noght.’ ” (“ ‘Thee need naught smile in scorn.’ She said, ‘forsooth I smiled naught.’ ”) The citation describes the biblical episode in which the aged Sarah is chided for doubting the Lord’s promise that she’ll bear a son, and her lie about not smiling.
Finally, the noun “smile” appeared in the mid-16th century. The earliest OED citation is from A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood: “Better is the last smile, than the first laughter.”