Word: countenance

Pronunciation: KOWN-t(e)n-əns

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a person’s face or facial expression

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.

– Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

Remember how I once mentioned that Frankenstein was my seventh-grade Language Arts teacher’s favorite novel? And that she used the book to teach us plenty of vocabulary words? Well, here’s another of her favorite words that made it onto the blackboard as the Word of the Day. In the above example, Dr. Frankenstein uses it to define the horror he’s created, but don’t assume it always has to mean something bad.

A person’s “countenance” is their face or expression. The word comes from the Old French noun contenance (“bearing” or “behavior”), which in turn is ultimately derived from the Latin verb continere “contain”. The original definition of “countenance” was “bearing” or “demeanor”, but eventually became associated with facial expressions.

I have a confession to make regarding this word: I almost used it in a story once, but ended up cutting it because it seemed a bit too “purple” for its context. I realized during editing that “countenance” sounded overly poetic, and I felt it would stand out in a narrative that mostly consisted of much simpler text. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make it work, of course; “countenance” can also mean “support”, or function as a verb to mean “admit as acceptable or possible”, so you may still be able to find a place for it even if you don’t plan to use it to indicate a character’s expression. As long as it fits the overall tone of your writing, you shouldn’t have a problem pulling it off. Have fun writing about the “countenances” of your characters!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?


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