Gurning and gurning in the widening gyre

Gurning contestant. I’m not sure what the point of the horse collar is, but they all wear one.

I was recently reading a British graphic novel where an unhappily married woman referred to her husband as a “gurning idiot.” Now I was sure I’d heard the word “gurning” before but it’s one of those words that you give a pass to because you think you have a general idea what it means and it seems to only be modern slang anyway. But out of curiosity, this time I decided to look it up.

In fact, it’s a very old word, and seems to have enjoyed peak popularity sometime in the 18th century. Nobody is quite sure where it comes from, though it’s been suggested it comes from a Scottish dialect for “grin.” To be honest, I always figured it basically meant “grinning,” with an added sense of doing so in a particularly stupid way. It also has a more modern application related to the sort of face people sometimes make when they are on drugs.

The more precise meaning is to make a distorted facial expression, typically by sticking one’s jaw out and up. This is easier to do if you have no teeth, and apparently people without teeth can even gurn to the point where they cover up their noses. This makes their gurns hard to top in gurning contests, which I was surprised to find are a real thing. There’s even a World Gurning Championship for gurners held in England, though I don’t know how big gurning is outside of England. I suspect it’s very limited, as I’d never heard of these competitions before.

I don’t know what calling someone a “gurning idiot” means beyond saying they are ugly and stupid. Or maybe that they have an idiotic grin, even though it’s clear that gurning as a competitive event involves deliberately making a funny face — it’s not natural. That said, maybe a decent analogy for Americans to “gurning idiot” would be to calling someone a slack-jawed yokel. I think that’s basically what’s meant.

Words, words, words


8 thoughts on “Gurning and gurning in the widening gyre

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s