News your connection to The Boston Globe

Face Value

"OPERATION CLARK COUNTY was not a joke, but neither was it entirely po-faced -- it was a lighthearted attempt to make some quite serious points," wrote Ian Katz, an editor for the London-based Guardian, in a recent postmortem of the newspaper's own October Surprise. In midmonth, the Guardian had launched a letter-writing campaign that would match volunteers from its readership, one on one, with independent voters in a divided county in Ohio. The Brits would write to explain their stake in, and feelings about, the US election -- and presumably, given their discontent with the Iraq war, to urge a vote for John Kerry.

A week into the program, Katz -- battered by rebuffs from mind-your-own-business Buckeyes, death threats from anti-Kerry wingnuts, and a barrage of dental-themed insults -- chained up his Frankenstein monster and published his apologia (available at It's well worth reading for the picture of rival insularities it provides.

Katz, living at the urban center of a small country, confesses he had no inkling that the isolationist tendencies of small-town Ohio (my native turf) ran so deep that letters from a loyal ally might be met with hostility. On the other side, one Clark County addressee, according to an anti-Guardian online post, called the letter from abroad an "invasion of our privacy. " (Is it possible he doesn't get unsolicited mail from Bush/Cheney, Kerry/Edwards, and Pottery Barn three times a week?)

But all this is mere back story to our word question: What does Katz mean when he calls the experiment "not entirely po-faced"? Ten years ago, you might have said, "who cares?" But po-faced has now secured a toehold in the American press (yes, even in Ohio), and it's often a mysterious stranger, short on contextual clues to its sense.

I turn to the brand-new Oxford Concise Dictionary (11th edition), but it's a bit too concise. Po-faced means "humorless and disapproving," it says, but that doesn't fit Katz's sentence. An American dictionary proves more helpful: "having an assumed solemn, serious, or earnest expression or manner: piously or hypocritically solemn," says Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate. So Katz is denying his project was just straight-faced, sober-sided electioneering.

Still, there are more meanings lurking in po-faced. Michael Quinion's website,, offers "priggish, narrow-minded, disapproving" -- suggesting, Quinion says, the look of "someone trying not to show a reaction to some happening of which they disapprove.

" Cassell's Dictionary of Slang has some more synonyms: "arrogant, stand-offish." The Oxford English Dictionary adds smug.Do these definitions help us decode actual usage? Well, a New York Times book review last month described the fictional author of "`Ramp,' a sublimely po-faced drama about the disabled." OK -- the sense there is surely "piously or hypocritically solemn." And in pop music criticism -- "the recent resurgence in interest for po-faced singer-songwriters," to take a two-year-old example from the Dallas Observer -- this sense is close, though "maudlin" sometimes seems even closer.

But po-faced can be slippery. In last week's London Sunday Express, a writer cheered that "Unlike the groomed, po-faced heroines churned out by Hollywood, Bridget Jones can let her hair down." Who are these characters, and are they priggish, smug, arrogant, or all of the above? Po-faced, here, is no help at all.

Etymology doesn't help much, either, but at least it makes a good story. That po is an English abbreviation, in use since the 1880s and still familiar, of the French pot de chambre, or chamber pot. And plumbing-pampered Americans should note that the po is hardly ancient history: The writer Katherine Powers remembers learning po-faced in Ireland in the `60s, when there was a po in every bedside cabinet. The relationship between the porcelain object and the adjective seemed obvious, she e-mails: "A po-faced person sports the look of absurd dignity and humorlessness that is perfectly ridiculed by calling it po-faced."

The word is probably "influenced," as the OED has it, by our familiar poker-faced -- first recorded in 1885 -- and some claim that the game, not the pot, is the true source. I'm no expert, but I'm dubious. Americans play far more poker than the British -- if po-faced was a card-table term, wouldn't we have known it long ago?

Amid all this speculation, I'm speculating that po-faced, despite its scattered fans, may be a hard sell to Americans; unless we can choose one sense and stick with it, the word promises more pain than gain. The Po you meet trick-or-treating tonight -- he's the Teletubby in red -- may be the only po you'll ever need to know.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives