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Q From Jacquelyne Lord, and others: I have seen the expression po-faced on several occasions and when you used it recently, I thought this would be the best time to ask you where it comes from and what it means.

A I wondered if readers would be puzzled by that word. It’s common enough in Britain as a term for someone who is priggish, narrow-minded, disapproving or humourless, but not widely known elsewhere; it does occasionally appear in America, though mostly in writings by British authors.

It’s usually supposed to derive from the slang term po for a chamber pot (it rhymes with no), first recorded in the 1880s. But the abbreviation is more likely to be from the French pot de chambre than from the English term. It was probably influenced by the interjection pooh for something that’s distasteful, which is of course related to the verb to pooh-pooh meaning to express contempt or disdain for something; both are conventional reformulations of the noise one makes with the lips when appearing to blow away something unpleasant.

Po-faced was perhaps applied to such people because they react to insalubrious comments with a look of insufficiently disguised distaste, as if suddenly presented with a used chamber pot. The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests it might have been influenced by poker face, which is one of the senses it gives for the word; that is not quite how it is understood today, but it does imply somebody who is trying not to show a reaction to some happening of which they disapprove.

It’s actually quite a modern word, first recorded only in 1934 in the book Music Ho! by Constant Lambert, the British music critic and composer: “I do not wish, when faced with exoticism, to adopt an attitude which can best be described by the admirable expression ‘po-faced’. We cannot live perpetually in the rarefied atmosphere of the austerer classics”. Mr Lambert’s phrasing clearly suggests that the term was by then already well-known, though perhaps within a restricted group (it has the feel of public-school slang about it).

Chambers Dictionary argues that it comes from poor-faced, but this is a much less likely origin, especially when you consider other British terms like potty for a child’s chamber pot, and pooh or poo for its contents, even though these are recorded much later than po-faced.

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Page created 10 Jul 1999