Daily Archives: November 21, 2013

squinch, sanpaku

A while ago a friend let me in on a secret of looking good in photos: raise your lower eyelids. Don’t squint, not exactly; just tighten the eyes, especially from the bottom. It oozes confidence and looks maybe a little mischievous. Which, of course, is attractive.

Just today I saw an article on Gizmodo (with a video embedded) giving a word to this: squinch.

OK, yeah, like squint and pinch together, with tastes of squeeze and some other squ words (squirt, maybe squat, squelch) with their pucker and pressure release, and of crunch (and scrunch) and cinch and maybe even munch to add nch effect: the tongue tip presses close and then has just a little release at the end. A double dose of compressive effect. It seems like a reasonable confection to denote something that’s not full-on squinting but is a pinching with the same part of the face that does the squinting.

But it’s not a new word.

Nope, it’s been around since the mid-1800s. I do wonder whether every use of it between now and then was aware of previous uses; it does seem like the sort of word that could be made up again and again on the basis of the same phonaesthemes (those starts and finishes I just mentioned in the previous paragraph, not actual morphemes but bits that have connotations because of their sound and what other words they may make you think of). But anyway, the dictionary definition of it is more on the line of ‘screw up or distort the face’ – or of ‘crouch down or otherwise compress onself to take up less space’. So what we have here is a new variation of the meaning: ‘lightly squint the eyes, especially with the lower lids’.

A new, useful sense. We needed a word; this word presented itself. We have become aware of the value of looking not wide-eyed afraid in photos, and certainly not ill-starred sanpaku; we know that we look better if we have the eyes a little tighter. (Also bring the jaw forward a bit and perhaps leave the lips slightly open. The whole effect is almost predatory, and people like that.) So it’s nice to have a word for it. “OK, great, that’s great, but maybe can you squinch a little? Can you squinch for me a little, darling? Great, that’s fabulous, great.”

Did I say sanpaku back there? Oh, yes, that. Sanpaku is when you have eyes that show the white between the pupil and the lower lid. It doesn’t necessarily look fearful, but it can look tired or debauched or… well, perhaps even ill-fated. That’s the line George Ohsawa pressed in his book You Are All Sanpaku: showing those lower whites indicates a grave state of physical and spiritual imbalance, and may conduce to not just ill health but disaster. (Ohsawa’s solution to this was a macrobiotic diet.) To be fair, he didn’t originate this general idea; it’s from Chinese medicine – and Japanese too; after all, the word is Japanese: san ‘three’ plus haku ‘white’ (because the eye is three-quarters white) comes together to make sanpaku. (The same would be sanbai in Mandarin – which sounds almost like “stand by…”)

If the word sounds familiar to you from some bit of music, I suspect it’s from the 1983 new wave song “San Paku” by the Canadian group Darkroom. It shows up in a couple of other songs, but I doubt they’d stick. It has a good sound for a song like Darkroom’s: the almost electronic first two [æ] vowels (the first with a nasal on it) between the hiss and the two crisp stops, and then that final hollow [u]. It is in some ways a very opposite word to squinch. And actually, although squinching eyes are clearly more attractive than sanpaku eyes (and go better with new wave music), I’d have to say the word sanpaku seems way cooler and more attractive (and new wave) to me.


You can see the sanct in this, as in sanctuary and sanctify and so on, the etymon of saint. And in the noun sanctimony you can see more clearly the Latin-derived abstract noun ending mony, as in matrimony, alimony, parsimony, testimony, and so on. And of course there’s the adjectival ous. So this word would, by its origin, seem to mean ‘holy’, ‘saintly’, that sort of thing.

Which, originally, it did. But it came soon enough to shift in sense, from religion to religiosity, from holiness to hypocrisy. Now we see that the sancti is only for the money; this is the trade of the Tartuffe, the devourer of widows’ houses, perhaps the poseurs who sank Timon with IOU’s (a Shakespearean reference there). The po-faced people with hands folded, eyebrows arched, eyes cast heavenward, who are mainly concerned with making you feel inferior. And, by extension, the concerned ones. Those who pretend not, perhaps, to piety, but anyway to purity or caring, but really seem only to care about taking others down a notch. It’s a common character type in novels and movies.

Fortunately, the type is rarely encountered in so pure a form in our normal lives. Sanctimonious is for the most part not what someone is as a person, but just something someone is being at a given time. And few indeed are those among us who haven’t been at least a bit sanctimonious on occasion, condescending, acting holier-than-thou, if not for the money than to score some other kind of point. Of course, some people are more practiced at it than others.

It’s a nice word, sanctimonious, a word long enough that it can really express the exasperation one feels when one applies the label. Every one of its five syllables has its little jab. Sanc is no thanks but rather the sound of a sunk ship; ti is, unstressed, a homophone of to, making it like thanks to but not – rather more like sank to as in new lows; the mo is a moo with a condeming moue of o, asking not for mo’ but for no more; nious is not nice but rather a sound like knee us, as in in the groin, which is what those sanctimonious people are doing with their pretentious piety. Oh, no, we’re not good enough, we don’t understand, we’re just rambunctious unholy thoughtless guttersnipes.

Isn’t it nice that there are sanctimonious people, so we have someone to look down on for looking down on us?