So Happy He Gurns.

I’m reading Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, which jamessal gave me for Christmas, and enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those books whose language is so lively and irrepressible you want to read whole chunks aloud (which I do, to my wife, the cats, or failing an audience myself). It’s about John Lennon (though he is referred to only as “John”), and the passage I’m now reading describes his life in the Dakota in the late ’70s:

The yeast and warmth of the kitchen on a cold winter day with the city under its heaps of dirty snow outside — he’s cosy as a bastard in the womb. He is that happy he gurns and sings.

Naturally, I looked up the unfamiliar verb “gurn,” only to discover its sense isn’t as easy to pin down as I might have hoped. The OED (entry from 1899) says “To show the teeth in rage, pain, disappointment, etc.; to snarl as a dog; to complain persistently; to be fretful or peevish. Also to girn at. Now only north. and Sc.” (The etymology says it’s a variant of grin.) My Concise Oxford (12th ed., 2011) says: “1 Brit. pull a grotesque face. 2 (usu girn) chiefly Scottish & Irish complain peevishly.” M-W and AHD don’t have it, since it’s not American. So I turn to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with this word, and if so, how do you understand it in this passage? Is he making a face, complaining peevishly, or what? It’s reasonably clear that “that happy he gurns” is ironic, especially since later we get “He is that happy he wants to Scream.”

Comments

  1. I have encoutered gurn years ago, specifically as a face made by toothless people, involving pulling the lower lip up to reach the nose. That would not be Lennon, though I can easily imagine him making faces for fun.

    Lennon also screamed for fun, especially in the company of Harry Nilsson and alcohol.

    Gurning contests and championships have existed for decades at least. Consult your copy of the internet for details.

  2. Yes, the word is familiar to this Brit, though I don’t hear it much and have no particular insight into this passage. Sounds playful to me.

  3. It was in common use among 90s British ravers to describe the combination of manic smiling and uncontrollable repetitive jaw movements/chewing brought on by MDMA

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvyev37n7Zs

  4. That quotation actually reminds me of Lennon’s own prose, though without Lennon’s eccentric spelling. But I immediately thought of Dorothy Sayers’s translation of Dante’s Inferno (which she boldly titled Hell), Canto v, which begins (emphasis added):

    Così discesi del cerchio primaio
    giù nel secondo, che men loco cinghia
    e tanto più dolor, che punge a guaio.

    Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia:
    essamina le colpe ne l’intrata;
    giudica e manda secondo ch’avvinghia.

    Dico che quando l’anima mal nata
    li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa;
    e quel conoscitor de le peccata

    vede qual loco d’inferno è da essa;
    cignesi con la coda tante volte
    quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa.

    She renders the sound-symbolism as follows:

    From the first circle thus I came descending
    To the second, which in narrower compass turning,
    Holds greater woe, with outcry loud and rending.

    There in the threshold, horrible and girning,
    Grim Minos sits, holding his ghastly session,
    And, as he girds him, sentencing and spurning;

    For when the ill soul faces him, confession
    Pours out of it till nothing’s left to tell;
    Whereon that connoisseur of all transgression

    Assigns it to its proper place in hell,
    As many grades as he would have it fall,
    So oft he belts him round with his own tail.

    Ringhiare in Italian is ‘snarl, growl’.

  5. I too immediately thought of gurning contests. Not sure I’ve ever actually heard the word used; I think of it as British.

    I like the near-anagrammaticity of Lessing’s girn- for ringhia (though that spelling of the verb is unfamiliar to me).

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m familiar with the word (in actual life) in the sense “complain peevishly”, largely as in “Stop yer girning!”
    I always presumed it was specifically Scots, but apparently not …
    A connection with “grin” wouldn’t have occurred to me; perhaps there are really two different words involved? The semantic gap seems pretty wide to me.

  7. Harry R says:

    I (Londoner) am familiar with it, but only in the ‘pulling a grotesque face’ meaning.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Perhaps the “pulling faces” sense is English and the “moaning” sense is Scots? It would account for why I was only familiar with the latter.

    Whether this plays to national stereotypes I shall leave to others to determine.

  9. martinb says:

    Les Dawson!

  10. Perhaps the “pulling faces” sense is English and the “moaning” sense is Scots?

    That’s what the Concise Oxford says.

  11. Evan Hess says:

    Regarding the semanitc gap between the meanings of grin and gurn — “grin” can be traced to OE “grennian,” which was used to translate Classical Lat. “ringor, rictus,” meaning “snarl,” which had a Vulg. Lat. form “ringo” — which weirdly enough leads us back to the Beatles.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    Danish and Norwegian grine shows much the same semantic gap as grin and gurn.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ringo, the Snarling Beatle …
    Perhaps not.

  14. I’ve only encountered the “pull a face” meaning, only from British TV, only where it is mentioned rather than used, only in lighthearted factual programmes about Folk Up North.

    I surmise the “chiefly Scottish & Irish” is “chiefly Scottish & north Irish”; I’ve never heard it down in Cork.

  15. john burke says:

    The snooker champion Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan is known for pulling faces during play, usually to express puzzlement or irritation; commentators sometimes say “Ronnie’s gurning again.” (Despite the name, he’s not Irish but English.)

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps one of those words and phrases would translate French faire la grimace and faire des grimaces, for which I don’t think I have learned a suitable translation. Making faces does not seem to have exacly the same connotations.

    For a human being une grimace is a usually temporary and often deliberate facial distortion, although it can also be considered part of the nature of monkeys, apes and imaginary monsters. Medieval gargoyles can be described as des monstres grimaçants (from the verb grimacer).

    The most common uses of the noun are in phrases with the verb faire ‘to do’. Faire la grimace is used for a distortion caused by something unpleasant, such being served or even just offered a food you dislike. Faire des grimaces is more something you do for fun, distorting your facial features to make others laugh.

  17. British, and use it frequently! It means “to make a silly face” – whether deliberately or due to exertion or distraction of some sort. It’s a super four-letter verb.

  18. I have said he was a quiet baby; he was almost suspiciously mute, in fact. But one week he was colicky, or teething. He squealed and girned all day, his wretched noise even keeping me from the kitchen.

    The New Confessions

  19. Breffni says:

    It’s reasonably clear that “that happy he gurns” is ironic

    I don’t think it’s ironic: pulling “cripple” faces was an unlovely tic of John Lennon’s. Mark Lewisohn comments at length on his “strange and prolonged obsession with deformities” in Tune In:

    At any time now, John would contort his face into that of a ‘crip’ or ‘spaz’, the commonly used words of the period […]. He’d thrust his tongue inside his bottom lip, make ‘spaz’ noises and limp along the street […] He did it when he was feeling embarrassed or self-conscious, he did it when he ridiculed something, he did it when he thought someone was behaving like a prick, he did it off and on all the time at any moment […] (pp. 115-116)

    Google “Lennon pulling faces” for dozens of examples. My guess is that that’s what Barry has in mind, although I think in reality Lennon had outgrown it by about 1967.

    What do you think of Lennon’s voice in the novel? I kept reading that Barry had captured it perfectly, but I was disappointed.

  20. I don’t think it’s ironic: pulling “cripple” faces was an unlovely tic of John Lennon’s.

    Thanks, if I knew that (which I probably did at one point, since John was my Favorite Beatle) I’d forgotten it.

    What do you think of Lennon’s voice in the novel? I kept reading that Barry had captured it perfectly, but I was disappointed.

    I agree that it’s not Lennon’s voice, but I’m not disappointed. If I want Lennon’s voice, I can turn to my beat-up old In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works; I think the voice works perfectly for the novel, which is the important thing as far as I’m concerned.

  21. S. Norman says:

    I know it from this classic image:

    http://media2.fdncms.com/orlando/imager/u/zoom/2426485/c3b13b16_gurning_image_wm.jpg

    It was forever connected with Papa Oom Mow Mow by the horror host Goulardi:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoulardi.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7F2u9BIz_dA

  22. ‘It was in common use among 90s British ravers to describe the combination of manic smiling and uncontrollable repetitive jaw movements/chewing brought on by MDMA’

    Aye, I was familiar with the term from ’90s British music journalists with the meaning much as above, in the extract that Steve gives I would take it to mean, roughly, the facial contortions that usually accompany air guitar.

    I haven’t come across it here in Donegal, nor across the border, in my eighteen months living in Ulster doing a social job.

  23. “marie-lucie says:
    June 12, 2016 at 9:51 pm
    Perhaps one of those words and phrases would translate French faire la grimace and faire des grimaces, for which I don’t think I have learned a suitable translation. Making faces does not seem to have exacly the same connotations.”

    Swedish uses grimars, as in göra en grimars, with exactly the French meaning, and also using grina, just as Danish and Norwegian quoted above, more commonly grina illa, more regionally meaning more to show displeasure.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Vikinggirl!

  25. Well, the novel took a strange turn and I was unsatisfied with it by the time it ended. Such is life, such are novels.

Speak Your Mind

*