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’?
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.”
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!”
So she’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.”