Neil Whitman, author of the excellent Literal Minded blog, tweeted a question my way yesterday:
Hey, @Fritinancy, when did dentists start putting so much emphasis on "your smile"--how's your smile, improve your smile, etc.?— Neal Whitman (@LiteralMinded) July 31, 2013
I was stumped, so I played for time by tweeting back that it may reflect the linguistic influence of Smile Train, the charitable organization, founded in 1999, that provides free cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgery for poor children in developing countries. It isn’t dentistry, but it’s definitely medicine, and “smile” in the name and tagline (“Changing the World One Smile at a Time”*) accentuates the solution rather than the unattractive handicap. I speculated that Smile Train’s visibility and success—it’s the largest “cleft charity” in the world—may have led to copycatting by other mouth-centric occupations.
“Smile” as a substitute for “teeth and gums” certainly is widespread, as a quick survey of current Living Social deals indicates.
“Keep Your Smile Healthy”
“Land a Gorgeous Smile”
Even my own dentist, North Berkeley Dental Arts, does it.
“Imagine yourself with a new smile.”
This is different from “Imagine that you’re smiling,” and it’s very different from “Imagine yourself after the Novocaine finally wears off.” It’s an example of metonymy: a figure of speech in which a thing is called by something closely associated with the thing—“Hollywood” to mean “the film industry,” or “the White House” to mean “the executive branch of the U.S. government.”
Once I began thinking about dentists and “your smile” I remembered another example of oral metonymy I’d been noticing lately. This one comes from the world of cosmetics and beauty advice, where it seems you’re never fully dressed without a sulky, puffy-lipped pout.
I Googled to confirm this impression, and sure enough, I got 306,000 matches for “your pout.” At least on the first five pages (my limit), all of the references are to a lipsticked mouth, and many are alliterative: plump your pout, perfecting your pout, put power in your pout, prep your pout, make your pout pop, pump up your pout, etc., etc.
It sounds like Opposite World, doesn’t it? Women are wearing a smile in the dentist’s chair and a pout (“a protrusion of the lips, especially as an expression of sullen discontent”) in front of the bathroom mirror.
By the way, what first got me pondering “pout”—help! now I’m alliterating too!—was this marketing copy on a sample package of bareMinerals’ Marvelous Moxie lipstick**:
Yes, the same Marvelous Moxie responsible for “Kiss My Sass.”
The English-language copy talks about “a voluptuous, healthy-looking pout,” which is not just metonymic but also oxymoronic. But check out the French version. There’s a perfectly wonderful French word for pout, moue (pronounced “moo”), that’s also sometimes used in English. But the Marvelous Moxie copywriter didn’t use it. What do we see instead? “Un sourire voluptueux et resplendissant.” That’s right—a splendid, voluptuous smile.
* Regular readers will recognize the popular “One X at a Time” sloganclone.
** Notice, too, the branding by definition.