Out of countenance

Posted by on August 15, 2012

As a gesture to one of English’s great masters, about 200 years after her heyday, it’s appropriate to salute a word that she was very fond of and that has now all but slipped out of English. The master is Jane Austen; the word is the noun countenance.

It’s a stretch to say that countenance  has all but disappeared; if you Google it in News or Blogs, you’ll get hits. There are quite a few more instances of the verb than the noun these days, and of the noun there are proportionally quite a few more hits, interestingly, in outlying English dialects than in the big, mainstream ones—a symptom, perhaps, of these dialects’ preservation of colonialisms in English that are not frequent in British and American English today.

The noun countenance has lost a lot of ground in contemporary English to words that don’t quite capture what the word used to mean. The Macmillan dictionary definition of countenance gives two of these words: face and expression. The third word is look. These three have pretty well absorbed the constellation of things that people used to refer to when they talked about someone’s countenance. Let’s look at a few examples of the master in action:

If my countenance expressed what I aimed at, it was composed and dignified; and yet, with a degree of pensiveness which might convince him that I was not quite happy. (from Lady Susan)

. . .the interest excited by this tender remembrance showed itself directly in her altered countenance, and in the attentive pause with which she waited for something more. (from Northanger Abbey)

Some change of countenance was necessary for each gentleman as they walked into Mrs. Weston ‘s drawing-room. (from Emma)

She came up to me, claimed me as an acquaintance, stared me out of countenance; and talked and laughed till I did not know which way to look. (from Mansfield Park)

In her rather small oeuvre (less than a million words of her fictional writing is preserved), Jane Austen used the noun countenance more than 150 times. By contrast, the American writer Mark Twain, a generation younger than Austen and with an oeuvre more than three times the size of Austen’s, used countenance fewer times than she did. Was the word going out of fashion already by the mid 19th century? Or was it a word peculiarly suited to Austen’s way of rendering character for her readers?

Perhaps a little of each of these reasons explains why countenance would be somewhat startling if you used it today in casual conversation. Instead, we would probably say “the look on somebody’s face” or “his/her expression.” But Austen always get a bit more mileage out of countenance than any of these alternatives do—either now, or when she was writing. Here she is again in Persuasion:

He was quite as good-looking as he had appeared at Lyme, his countenance improved by speaking, and his manners were so exactly what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable, that she could compare them in excellence to only one person’s manners.

Austen manages to convey with countenance the mood and the nature of the person all at once, often with some suggestion of how one influences the other. Countenance still means today what she meant by it; perhaps we just don’t observe each other as closely as carefully as she did her characters and so we have lost the need to use the word.

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Comments (3)
  • This is quite a coincidence for me, as some months ago we compared the incidence of ‘countenance’ in the corpora available on Skylight. Charlotte Bronte in the mid-19th century used it just as often as Jane Austen; Thackeray and Dickens used it less (around 100 times per million words). But in 1.5 million words of D.H Lawrence, writing at the beginning of the 20th century I think, it occurs only 13 times – all nouns. I don’t know how much the use of a word by members of the literarure canon reflects its general use, of course, but then nor does anyone, really.

    And by the way, in a small (2.5-million-word) corpus of modern romantic fiction (2010-12), ‘countenance’ is not used at all as a noun, and only once as a verb. (You’re welcome to go onto the Skylight website if you’re interested in the romantic fiction corpus – I’m sure the others are available anywhere.)

    I was interested in your insights into how Austen uses the word as well as how often.

    Posted by gill francis on 17th August, 2012
  • Thanks for your interesting comment and information, Gill. It’s interesting that modern romantic fiction eschews ‘countenance’ since that genre inherits some qualities from the Austen-Bronte arc (though certainly not its quality). It further piques my curiosity about why some words fall from fashion.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 19th August, 2012
  • Latest figures I have (from a v large web corpus built in 2012) show that its frequency is down to 1.2 occurrences per million words of text – almost one-hundredth of its frequency in the 19th century writers you quote. So the graph continues steadily downwards even from D H Lawrence’s time.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 20th August, 2012
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