Smize | Word of the Month

There are many words that make me happy. Whimsy (a word that is as playful as that it describes), lackadaisical (a contrary word that’s defined as ‘not showing enough care or enthusiasm’ yet takes a lot of care and enthusiasm to say and write!), hoity-toity (the reduplicative /ɔɪ/ makes this incredibly fun to say), thwack (one of the most satisfying examples of onomatopoeia in the English language, in my humble opinion), bamboozle (there’s something both hilarious and endearing about that /uːzl/ sound!), and the newest addition to my list of favourite words: smize.

How did the word “smize” come to exist?

While the rest of the words on my list are well established in the English language, dating back to the mid-18th century at the very latest, smize (noun and verb) has been around for a mere 12 years, having been coined in 2009 by the American model and television host Tyra Banks. This little neologism came about when Banks challenged the aspiring models on the TV show America’s Next Top Model to express emotion with their eyes instead of their mouth: “you will battle it out to see who has the best smize”.

How is “smize” used today?

Banks could not have predicted how significant this minor modelling technique would become 11 years later. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the wearing of masks to cover our noses and mouths became the norm. With our mouths hidden, our eyes have become our main means of facial expression. There is a saying “Eyes are the windows to the soul”. Face masks have forced us to pay far more attention to those windows than we may have done previously. A smile is now useless unless it is also expressed in your eyes. But how do you show a smile using your eyes?

The original purpose of a smize was to express warmth in the eyes during modelling shoots without also smiling, in order to appear striking in a photo. Luckily for us, as we’re not models we don’t have to worry about our image in professional photos. We simply want to appear polite and friendly while out in public in a face mask, so it matters not a jot whether we are smiling with our mouths as well as our eyes. Besides, no one can see our mouths anyway! So, in order to smize while wearing a mask, we simply have to smile a genuine, heartfelt smile and it will automatically show in our eyes, whereas a fake or insincere smile won’t reach the eyes. If you feel it, you’ll show it!

Why is this new word so great?

Now, what do I think is so great about this new word? Firstly, I like that it’s provided a remedy to the loss of the smile in public places during the pandemic. The combination of face masks and social distancing meant that interpersonal connection was, and continues to be, difficult and I think anything that mitigates that and offers some form of positive human connection is something to be celebrated.

Secondly, I love the image that it so successfully evokes: a certain twinkle of true happiness and the willingness to communicate that happiness. It’s a truly happy word. And thirdly, it’s a clever little portmanteau of smile and eyes but, unlike many other portmanteaus – including those that have arisen since the coronavirus pandemic (covidiot, elbump), smize doesn’t use the spelling of both words which would create the very odd smeyes. Instead, it uses the spelling of smile and combines it with the pronunciation of eyes, nattily and conveniently giving it the common verb ending –ize. It’s handy, it’s happy and it’s morphologically interesting. Well deserving of a place on my list of favourite words, I hope you’ll agree!

I’m sure readers of this blog post will have their own lists of favourite words. Whether the words are English or from the thousands of other languages spoken around the world. Comment below if you’d like to share – we’d love to hear them.

Discover more words and their meanings at our Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries!

 Stacey Bateman is a Senior Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

8 thoughts

    1. The article says that luckily for us, we don’t have to worry about our facial expression when smizing, since we are not models; not that we should feel lucky about not being a model.

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