CLOSE
Original image
iStock

Brits and Americans Have Totally Different Ideas of What ‘Frown’ Means

Original image
iStock

Lynne Murphy is an American linguist who has been living in the UK for 21 years. For 10 of them she has been writing the blog Separated by a Common Language, detailing the many ways, both subtle and obvious, American and British English part ways. No one is more of an expert on the UK/North America differences, so you can imagine her shock when she realized that all this time, the people around her had a completely different understanding of the word frown. For her, the locus of the frown was the mouth. For the Brits around her, it was not the mouth, but the brow that made the frown.

She discovered this fact through an old blog post by Michael Wagner, a linguistics professor at McGill University, where he tells the story of how he found out that frown meant something different to him (he is from Germany and has European English) than to his Canadian friend. They were looking at a piece of abstract art at a museum when his friend asked, "Do you think this is a frown or a moustache?" Wagner was confused because,

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.

What is a frown? A look of displeasure, made with the eyebrows? Or a sad face, made with downturned mouth? Informal surveys performed by Wagner at the time and then six years later by Murphy both revealed the same result, which can be summed up as "Wait! OMG! THAT’S what you think it means? I had no idea!" And "Oooohhh, so that’s why Americans say ‘turn that frown upside down'!"

So what’s a frown to you? The opposite of a smile or a furrowed forehead of concern?

Check out Wagner’s original post, and read the very interesting ensuing discussion at Separated by a Common Language, which suggests there may be age and regional effects influencing your decision.

Original image
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
Original image
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Original image
iStock
arrow
language
Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
Original image
iStock

Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios