Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Countenance


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is countenance. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

Countenance is a formal word that is most often used to refer to a person’s facial expression, or to the face generally, especially as an indication of mood, emotion, or character.

// Her cheerful countenance quickly put the lost visitors at ease.

// I was struck by the professor’s kind and curious bespectacled countenance.


“The film stars Emily Watson and Paul Mescal as mother Aileen and son Brian, whose isolated, tight-knit fishing village on the Irish coast is lovely and decrepit. … Mescal’s charming but cagey performance is as much a lure for the audience as for Aileen herself, and Watson is breathtaking to watch as the cycle of furies and fears and doubts warp her countenance.” — Lauren Puckett-Pope, ELLE, 30 Sept. 2022

Did You Know?

Let’s face it: the countenance familiar to modern speakers does not bear an obvious resemblance to its Latin root continēre, meaning “to hold together” (a root it shares with contain). But the path between continēre and countenance becomes clearer when we think of the figurative “holding together” present in the idea of restraint. When countenance was first used in English (having traveled from Latin through Anglo-French) it referred to a person’s appearance or behavior—their demeanor—which is a product of restraint, or the lack thereof. And from “demeanor” it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to “facial expression.” A few centuries after that development, in the late 16th century, countenance faced a new task head-on—use as a verb meaning “to extend approval or toleration to.”

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