facial and vocal expressions of amusement

a lexical semantics essay
by g. le

What are the obvious differences between a smile, a grin, a smirk, a laugh, a chuckle, and a giggle? These are some of the commonly-used terms of facial expression showing amusement or pleasure, which are at times hard to distinguish. The differences in meaning are subtle, and vary from one geographical region to another, or even from one person to the next. Here I will try to contrast six of the terms, so that their differences might become easier to distinguish.

To begin with, three terms are only facial expressions: 'smile', 'grin', and 'smirk'. The other three, 'laugh', 'giggle' and 'chuckle', are also expressed vocally. A smile and a laugh, for instance, are two obvious contrasting terms. A smile is a general term for the facial expression of amusement, while a laugh is a term for the combination of both facial and vocal expression. The mouth, while smiling, is curved upwards. Teeth can be shown or not; jaws are together, and the voice not heard. A smile can indicate a number of things. A person would smile when pleased with something or someone. The person smiling could be indicating to another person that an invitation to a conversation is welcomed. When a smile is accompanied by a wink, it could mean "I'm flirting with you." When laughing, however, the mouth is opened a bit more to let air in and out, and the voice is then heard. It is impossible to laugh with closed lips. While laughing, the body also makes slight shaking movements.

A smile that is broad and artificial can easily turn into a grin if one closes the jaws and shows teeth. A grin has mischievous hidden connotations. A person grins when wanting something from another person, but does not want to come right out and say it. One would also grin when playing a joke on someone else, and is now waiting for him to fall for it. A grin is more like an evil or distorted form of a smile.

Another form of facial expression to show a kind of amusement is the smirk. It looks somewhat like an asymetric smile. The corners of the mouth are turned up not quite as much as when smiling. A person smirks when an amusing thought comes to mind and he smiles almost just to himself, but it can be seen on his face. An instance would be, while having a serious conversation with a highly respected person, such as the Queen of England, a man notices that the bottom part of her skirt is tugged inside her nylons. He would automatically smirk because it is amusing, but laughing out loud would be inappropriate in this situation. A smirk is an almost hidden smile. The difference between a grin and a smirk is that the grin is more obvious and mischievous, while the smirk can usually not be helped or controlled, even though the person smirking tries to conceal it.

A giggle might be described as the grin's vocal counterpart, and is a distorted variation of the laugh. With a giggle comes a sense of silliness. I don't think any one of us has ever seen the Queen of England or the Pope in Rome giggle in public. We usually see teenagers giggling about something among themselves, perhaps about food stuck between another person's teeth. Because a giggle is a form of laugh, slight shaking of the body is also involved. Often a person holds a hand in front of his mouth as a gesture of concealed amusement, usually mockingly. I would describe the giggle as a mixture of a grin and a laugh. A giggle is laughing in a somewhat undignified or silly manner.

While both the giggle and the chuckle are forms of a laugh, there are differences between them. When a person tries to restrain a laugh, it becomes a chuckle. His body also starts to slightly shake, and he makes a little bit of a clucking sound. As mentioned before, when a person giggles, his hand often covers his mouth. When chuckling, on the other hand, he might hold his stomach with one or both hands to show his restrained amusement. A person often chuckles when he finds something truly amusing, but not hysterical for him to laugh out loud and unrestrained, while giggling usually involves mockery of another person.

The difference between a giggle and a smirk is more obvious. While a smirk is only a facial expression, a giggle is also vocal. A smirk is quasi half a smile, while a giggle is a partial laugh. The similarity between the two is that they are both done in half concealment. The smirk, however, is more hidden and dignified than a giggle. A smirk sometimes appears on a person's face when he has a random, humorous thought to himself, whereas he would giggle if he sees a mishap to another person, even though he can relate, he is glad it is not happening to him because it is rather embarrassing, like walking around with an open zipper.

The first obvious difference between a grin and a chuckle is the voice. The grin shows teeth, while the chuckle is usually expressed with closed mouth and a shaking body. For instance, when told a joke, a person chuckles if the joke is amusing. If, however, the person grins at the person telling the joke, then he probably means to say that the joke is not funny in any way and that he should stop telling him any more jokes because he wouldn't laugh anyway, and that he should go away.

A smile is usually done in a dignified manner and can have an array of meanings, while a giggle is associated with a youthful silliness and at times ridicule of something or someone else. If you wear a dress that you have not yet worn before, and your friend smiles at you, it could mean that she thinks the dress looks nice, but it could also mean that she thinks you are over-dressed. If she, on the other hand, giggles, it is obvious that she thinks you look ridiculous in that garb.

The smirk and the laugh have their first obvious difference in the voice. A smirk is only a slight smile, while the laugh is the general term for showing amusement with vocal expression. If, say, you walk downtown and trip at the curb, you might get a smirk from a stranger or from a person who is not a close friend. Your friend, who is walking with you, might laugh at you because he finds it amusing that you tripped. A stranger would rarely laugh at you because it would be considered impolite, unless, of course, the stranger is rude or mentally imbalanced.

A smile and a chuckle are very different from each other. Let us go back to the example of you telling a friend a joke. If he smiles after you have finished telling a joke, he is probably saying that he finds it cute that the joke makes you laugh, even if the joke is completely lame. If he chuckles at your joke, it is obvious that he too, finds it amusing.

I hope from this, the differences among the six terms of facial and vocal expressions have become clearer. There are many more terms related to these ones, but since they are not often used, they neither come to mind nor would I know how to define and contrast them.

From the expressions above, it might even be possible to organize these terms into a binary structure. On one side, we would have 'smile', on the other side, 'laugh'. One is a facial expression, the other a vocal one. Under smile, we would put 'smirk' and 'grin', which are different forms of the smile. Under 'laugh', we would put 'chuckle' and 'giggle' because they are both variations of the general term 'laugh'. But this is genuinely taxonomic, not really binary if we include other forms of smiling and of laughing.

Below is an attempt at a binary structure of the terms I have described above

s m i l e l a u g h