Odd words: (G) GURNING

The pulling of grotesque faces.

This British term — much better known in Britain and Commonwealth countries than in the US — has at times been applied to the pulling of faces as a competitive activity. A surviving example is that in the Lake District, where the Egremont Crab-Apple Fair has an annual contest, which they call the World Championship Gurning Competition and which they say dates back to 1266. There is also an Australian national competition that I know of, and there may be others, too. At one time, such face-pulling contests were a common entertainment at fairs and gatherings around Britain (before the days of radio and television you had to get your fun where you could). The rules at Egremont are simple: competitors put their heads through a horse collar and then have a set time in which to contort their faces into the most gruesome,   scary or daft expressions possible. False teeth may be left in or taken out, or even turned upside down if desired. The winner is the person who gets the most audience applause. (above: Tommy Mattinson flares his nostrils on his way to becoming the World Gurning Champion for the tenth time.)

The word seems to have been originally Scottish, in the form girn, which — appropriately enough — may have been a contorted form of grin. It has had several meanings, of which the oldest — from medieval times — is still current in Scots and Irish dialect, and which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “to show the teeth in rage, pain, disappointment, etc; to snarl as a dog; to complain persistently; to be fretful or peevish”. These days only the losers in the World Championship Gurning Competition do much of that. (worldwidewords.com)



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About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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4 Responses to Odd words: (G) GURNING

  1. That is definitely a trophy you keep to yourself 🙂

  2. Nice! Once we went to a Ripley’s in Canada where they had a gurning display which included a mirror to try gurning yourself after you viewed the photos and history. Later in the tour we came to a large glass window with people on the other side making crazy faces. Dooh!! We had a good laugh.

  3. Heather says:

    I’m having a difficult time even digesting my own reaction to this. Awkward is the best term I have that comes to mind.

  4. THE BEST says:

    @The Swell Guy
    we went to one in london and it had that 1 way mirror too!!!

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