rictus

This is a word that seems suited to a skeleton. It has the racket of erect and rickety (a word that may suggest rigidity by sound, but actually rickets, the disease it’s named for, involves softening and bending of the bones) and a hint of rigid and strict, perhaps the unbending spininess one thinks of with cactus… It also has a rhyme of ictus (the downbeat of a measure of rhythm) and perhaps a hint of Alan Rickman. But the weary sneer of the latter does not exemplify the object of this word. If you’ve seen this word, you’ve probably seen it referring to the grin on a skeleton, or to some similarly rigid grin; there’s even a death metal trio called Rictus Grin. One might expect that it comes from a word for “grin” or perhaps has some relation to rigid. Actually, it comes from the Latin word rictus (comes from? is, borrowed unaltered), meaning “open mouth” or “open jaws,” and that in turn is the past participle of the verb ringi, which means – wait for it – “open the mouth wide.” So the key feature of a rictus is the gape, as of one with lockjaw. Which is a little ironic in that one can’t say rictus with jaws agape; in fact, the /kt/ in the middle manages to force a full-tongue press to the palate, and the rest of the word requires a strictness of stricture. Scramble this word and you get rustic… but rictus seems less sticks than Styx.

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