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Purse-lipped

Q From Rish: In your piece on the Tourism Australia bloody usage fiasco, you use the term purse-lipped. I’m not familiar with the true meaning of the term, and a brief online search didn’t reveal much either. I was hoping that you could perhaps explain the term and how it originated.

A It was actually an Australian writing in the Guardian who used it; since I knew what it meant, I didn’t comment on it. To be purse-lipped is to be censorious, or silently disapproving.

It derives from the verb to purse. One sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary is “[t]o contract, to draw together (the lips, brow, etc.) in wrinkles or puckers, suggesting the tightly drawn-in mouth of a purse”, which suggests an old-style purse with a drawstring to close it. The image is of a person compressing their lips together firmly in disgust or prudishness.

It’s surprising how rarely it turns up in dictionaries: I’ve checked through more than 20 current ones in my collection and it isn’t in any of them. Their editors presumably feel it is unnecessary to include it because its meaning is clear from the verb. Unfortunately, that’s often not so. Some works do give helpful verb definitions — the Oxford Dictionary of English says “(of the lips) to pucker or contract, typically to express disapproval or irritation”. But others explain the verb by the single word “pucker”, which doesn’t give the right idea at all — you might guess that purse-lipped meant positioning the lips to prepare for a kiss, quite the wrong idea. Even the OED’s definition fails to communicate the essential idea of disapproval.

The term is actually quite old — though the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t feature the exact expression, it has two related examples from the seventeenth century. A clergyman named John Gaule used one in his Pusmantia the mag-astro-mancer; or the magicall-astrologicall-diviner posed and puzzled (don’t ask) in 1652: “A purse lip [forespeaks] a scraping sneak; and a blabber lip, a nasty slut.” Not quite the modern sense, but close.

A better example appeared in the Oakland Tribune in August 1949: “Snyder arrived — purse-lipped, prepared to scold. He scolded, and left, more purse-lipped than before.”

Page created 8 Apr. 2006

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Last modified: 8 April 2006.