“Po-faced”

I wrote this for the Lingua Franca, the blog I contribute to at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The post is below, followed by some subsequent reflections:

The expression po-faced has achieved, as expressions sometimes do, a vogue. The following quotations all appeared in print in the last 15 months:

  • “And it is satisfying to be allowed to hoot publicly at a man who is likely to remind you of every po-faced schoolteacher who told you to stop giggling.” (New York Times theater review.)
  •  ”To me, the scurrilousness has the pasty complexion of po-faced error. The worry, the criticism, feels tacky and fatuous.” (Darin Strauss, New York Times,  on the supposed death of literary fiction.)
  • “Rather than coming off all po-faced and ‘I told you so,’ the 2012 edition of Muse is instead busy smirking, raiding the mini-bar and slurring ‘I told you so.’” (Buffalo News.)
  • “But 2011 has brought a crop of foreign-language films in which po-faced pedantry has taken a back seat to dynamic storytelling.” (Variety.)
  •  ” … a yearning Irish busker and a po-faced Czech pianist.” (New York Post, review of the musical play One.)

If you don’t know what po-faced means (as I did not the first couple of times I came across it), the examples won’t be very helpful in instructing you. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition is, “Characterized by or assuming an expressionless or impassive face; poker-faced; (hence) humourless, disapproving.” The first citation is from Music Ho!, a 1934 book by the British composer and critic Constant Lambert, and suggests an origin not long before that: “I do not wish, when faced with exoticism, to adopt an attitude which can best be described by the admirable expression ‘po-faced’.”

That the OED is far from certain on the expression’s origin can be gleaned from the fact that, in a two-line etymological note, it uses the word perhaps four times. Perhaps it derives from the interjection poh (or pooh), or perhaps from the noun po, meaning chamber pot. Or perhaps it’s a shortening of poker-faced. A comparison to pie-faced could be useful as well. Perhaps.

I don’t find any of these convincing, to tell you the truth. The first doesn’t jibe with the early uses. The interjection-derivation rings slightly truer (po-faced as one who says “poh”), but why would the h be dropped in the compound word? And those early uses are all British, while poker-faced and pie-faced are Americanisms. The OED defines the latter as, “Having a round, flat face or a blank expression; stupid”; all the early citations are in reference to babies or children.

Searching through Google Books, I found this in Who’s There Within?, a 1942 novel by the British author Louis Golding (1895-1958): “But how could she act like that, like an outraged Victorian matron, how could she? How could she be so po-faced! (She was using the favourite word of the Bohemians in the London of the early twenties, the Cave of Harmony, and Harold Scott, of Elsa Lanchester, and all that.)”

I mentioned all this to my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda, a teacher of history and a keen student of the Bright Young Things. She mentioned the post-Great War generation’s fondness for abbreviations and acronyms, and speculated that po-faced may have originally been p.o.-faced, though she didn’t have a thought on what p.o. may have stood for. I will go with that till proven otherwise, and, naturally, welcome opinions and speculation.

Not only Elizabeth but all the Americans to whom I’ve mentioned po-faced initially thought that the first word was a Southern rendition of poor (as in the New Orleans po’ boy sandwich) and that the term was related to the familiar American verb poor-mouth, meaning (the OED says), “The action of claiming to be poor, or of belittling or understating resources, abilities, etc.”

I initially had that sense, too. But that can’t be the case if the expression was created by London Bohemians in the 1920s. However, I believe recent American adopters have somewhere in the front or back of their minds a po-faced/poor-mouth relationship. That is, to them, po-faced is an attitude characterized by some sort of combination of impassiveness, disapproval, and feigning of poverty or humility.

Clearly, further research is called for. For the time being, I’ll merely note that the second use by a New York Times staff member (the first was in 1984 by the columnist Anthony Lewis, a well-known Anglophile) came in a 1988 piece, datelined London. Howell Raines—a Southerner who would later become the Times’ executive editor—wrote about a British performer who adopted the identity of an American named “Hank Langford”Wangford”–a “self-described ‘po-faced’ country singer.” Can anyone doubt that in his mind Raines connected po and po’?

Quintin Hogg in his later years

Quintin Hogg in his later years

I’ll close with the observation that no matter how popular po-faced becomes on these shores, no one can use it like a Brit. A case in point is the Conservative leader Quintin Hogg (1907-2001), otherwise known as Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone, KG, CH, PC, QC, FRS. In 1966 The Times of London reported:

Mr. Hogg said at Watford that he had been given five new walking sticks since he broke his at Chiswick on Mr. Wilson’s portrait. [Apparently a Labour supporter had waved a Harold Wilson placard in Hogg's face, whereupon he struck it with one of the two canes he employed, owing to the many times his ankles had been injured while he was engaged in his favorite pastime, mountain-climbing.] “Politics should be fun,” he said. “Politicians have no right to be pompous or po-faced.”

Additional thoughts:

First, I found a use of po-faced nearly a quarter-century earlier than the OED’s 1934 cite. Surprisingly, it was in an American novel, The Annals of Ann (1910), by Kate Trimble Sharber. A character named Mammy Lou is speaking (“Mammy” being a term for an African-American female servant) about the suitability of a certain gentleman as a marital prospect”

“But, honey, he is tolerable po-faced, which ain’t no good sign in marryin’. If thar’s anybody better experienced in that business than me and King Solomon I’d like to see the whites o’ ther eyes; an’ I tell you every time, if you want to get a good-natured, wood cuttin’, baby-tendin husban’ choose one that’s fat in the face!”

Sshe’s using po-faced to mean more or less gaunt. Since this doesn’t show up anywhere else, and since the Bright Young Things most likely weren’t reading obscure American novels, I would take this as a rare, possibly unique, piece of regional dialect.

When the Lingua Franca piece appeared, the prolific and valuable language commentator Stan Carey posted a comment that the American Heritage Dictionary was a bit more definitive than the OED about etymology, stating that the term comes from pot (pronounced “po”) de chambre, French for chamber pot, “a po-faced expression being likened to that of a person observing the contents of a chamber pot with disgust.”

On reflection, I am inclined to accept this hypothesis. The OED has an 1880 citation for po-as-chamber pot (in a dictionary of the Scottish Language, interestingly), and a use of it by Leonard Woolf in a letter written in 1905 (a time when Woolf, having graduated from Cambridge, was serving in the Ceylon Secret Service): “I have to help to see that King’s House is prepared for him, to reckon out how many fishknives & pillow cases & pos he wants.”

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18 responses to ““Po-faced”

  1. hmmmm….i’m wondering about your use of “has achieved….a vogue…” sounds kind of like a britishism to me! sarah kallison

    • Well, Sarah, a vogue among the chattering classes, like most NOOBs. This it appeared only four times in the New York Times through 1998 (one in a book review by an Indian and one an excerpt of a novel by Milan Kundera, probably translated by a Brit), but eight (count ‘em!) times since 2010.

  2. The discussion reminds me of a Britishism that I’ve never been clear on: ‘U.P.’ As you can imagine, it’s very hard to look up. I have the impression that it means something like ‘not done’ or in poor taste? But what is the derivation?

  3. If there’s any truth in the theory that it began life in the twenties as ‘p.o. – faced’ then it would be easy to guess that p.o. stood for ‘pissed-off’.

    A pissed-off face is exactly what po-faced people have!

  4. Means humourless. Pissed off is more recent than your citations
    Pie-faced is drunk

    • Right on “pissed-off,” first OED cite of which is a 1943 book by an American, George Biddle. The expression appears in the U.S. (roughly equally) as “pissed off” and “pissed,” but only as the former in the U.K., where the latter means what Ms. Kozloff incorrectly says that “pie-faced” means. The similar term that sometimes actually does mean “drunk” is “pie-eyed.”

  5. The adopted name of the “Country & Western” singer referred to, is Hank Wangford, not Langford.
    Perhaps a confusion with English former child-star, “Bonnie” Langford?
    (Says he in an appropriately po-faced manner).

  6. I’d concur with the hypothesis that “po” is an abbreviation of “pot” in Scottish usage. It was widely in use in my grandmother’s generation in Northern Ireland, and there are many parallel usages in the two countries.

  7. “po” for chamber pot is a relatively ancient term in English (not exclusively Scots-English) and I always thought that it was a corruption of French in the same way as “loo”.

    So: “pot de chambre” and “gardez l’eau”

    I have to admit that I thought of it as nothing else than the bottom of a chamber pot, kept under the bed in comedies. Blank (one hopes), so basically it is an expression of humourlessness. Certainly “poker-face” it is not.

    • The derivation of “loo” from gardez l’eau is highly unlikely. If “loo” comes from French it’s more likely from the euphemistic phrase lieux d’aisances. But that too is conjecture – the origin of loo is really not known.

      • Of course Edmund Blackadder had the right idea

        Mrs. Pants: But what about the privies?
        Blackadder: Um, well, what we are talking about in privy terms is the latest in front wall fresh air orifices combined with a wide capacity gutter installation below.
        Mrs. Pants: You mean you crap out the window?
        Blackadder: Yes.
        Mrs. Pants: Well in that case we’ll definitely take it. I can’t stand those dirty indoor things.

      • ”Loo” comes from “Garde Loo” which was a term often heard in Old Edinburgh (Old Reekie) before the days of indoor plumbing. Based on the French “Gardez L’eau” (watch out for the water), it served as a warning to those below that the contents of the chamberpot would soon be thrown from an open window.

  8. Yes, I’d agree re “U.P.”, that perhaps you’re thinking about “U” and “non-U”. This very much reflected the insecurities of the British Establishment class following the social upheaval wrought by World War 2, and was projected through the writings of Nancy Mitford. A humorous view of this clash of the classes was reflected in the wonderful social observations of cartoonist (and much more) Osbert Lancaster.

  9. Speaking as an over 60s Brit, “po” has always meant the same as “loo” to me – e.g. “he’s on the po”. – it’s a sort of lower-middle class term, slightly “rude”, the sort of word used by kids. Po-faced means somewhat prim and proper and disapproving – and I always assumed it has the same derivation, i.e. a face like a loo!!!

  10. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there should be a Franco-Scottish linguistic convergence, since they’ve had a shared history allying against the English for centuries: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Alliance

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