moue

There are many words that, in saying, intend to imitate the sound of what they name – moo, to give an obvious example – but name me a word that, in saying, imitates the gesture of the thing it names.

Name me another word, I mean. Because today’s word is the obvious example. Yes, you can say “moue” without making a moue; you can even say it with your lips barely parted. But if you really emphasize the gesture, you moue. And if you make a moue and try to say something while doing so, the word you’ll say is most likely moue. It’s like if we called an air kiss a mwah (which sometimes we do).

A moue can be any sort of expression that causes the lips to purse outward: duck face, a grimace of pain at a blow to a sensitive part or of sympathy at seeing someone else receive such a blow, the face some wine tasters make while slurping the wine in their mouths so they can declare that it tastes like leather, tobacco, wet gravel, or cat’s pee. But most often it refers to a pout, often a playful one.

Of course it’s a French word. Making a pouty face playfully is on page one of the French gestural phrasebook. And in case it’s uncertain, I will assure all and sundry that moue is pronounced exactly the same as English moo, even when a French person says it: moue is the French way to spell the sound that in English is spelled moo.

And so you might expect that moue arose when some writer, lacking any more arbitrarily formed word, decided to describe a pursing of the lips with a gestural imitation. You might not expect this word to have an etymology that connects it to other, not identical forms.

So sorry to disappoint you, then. Don’t pout! The forms are similar. The Old French ancestor is moe, and that came not from Latin but from Frankish, a Germanic tongue, where the word (still meaning ‘pout’ or ‘grimace’) is conjectured to have been mauwu. That, in turn, is expected to have come from Proto-Indo-European *-mewH meaning ‘push away’.

So perhaps – perhaps – the word originally did not come from the gesture. Perhaps! But when you have a word that is close enough in meaning, and so well represents a particular sense, it is reasonable that the usage might have shifted and/or narrowed to match what seemed most suitable. It’s a thing we do from time to time.

And now, to make up for any deficit of charm, here is the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that made me think of this word today.

Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue
Pire si le rire secoue
Votre aile sur les oreillers.

Indifféremment sommeillez
Sans crainte qu’une haleine avoue
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez
Envisagé de quelque moue.

Tous les rêves émerveillés,
Quand cette beauté les déjoue,
Ne produisent fleur sur la joue
Dans l’œil diamants impayés
Rien, au réveil, que vous n’ayez.

Here’s a translation of sorts, not trying to keep the rhyme (translations are always imperfect… sorry!):

Nothing, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue
Worse if the laugh should shake
Your wing upon the pillows.

You sleep indifferently
Without fear a breath would admit
Something, on waking, you never have
Considered with a sort of moue.

All the amazed dreams,
When this beauty foils them,
Do not give a flower to the cheek
In the eye diamonds not paid for
Nothing, on waking, you never have.

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