How the 🙁 expression exposed a hole in the spacetime continuum

I feel like a man out of his own time stream. Somehow I seem to have Quantum Leaped into a reality in which words I’ve known and used for decades have different meanings.

Take, for example, the word “frown”. In my universe, a frown is quite simply an upside-down smile. It’s a down-turn of the mouth, indicating sadness or confusion.

Apparently that’s also the US definition of the word. If you access Dr Google from the US – as I just did via a VPN – you get this, correct definition:

form an expression of disapproval, displeasure, or concentration, typically by turning down the corners of the mouth.

So far, me, American Google, and the universe are aligned.

But with the VPN turned off, an appointment with Dr Google in the UK reveals very different results:

furrow one's brows in an expression indicating disapproval, displeasure, or concentration.

Both UK and US definitions carry the same examples phrases: “he frowned as he reread the letter” and “a frown of disapproval”, but apparently with quite different meanings.

I first came across this bizarre difference a few weeks ago when hearing John Siracusa relate to his Reconcilable Differences co-host Merlin Mann, that a Brit had told him that frowning had nothing to do with the mouth.

Imagine my surprise. I mean, I expressed disapproval, displeasure and consternation at hearing this. And of course I did so by turning down the corners of my mouth!

“I know”, I thought, “this is just a Brit pulling John’s leg”. John gets frustrated by the differences between US and UK English, and that his co-host Merlin sometimes uses English terms when John would rather he use American ones. So I thought maybe this was someone taking, as we would say, the piss.

But two weeks later, the next episode was filled with people writing in from three angles:

  • Americans who were surprised that there could be an alternate definition
  • Brits who know that frowning means turning down the mouth
  • Brits who think – bizarrely – that no-one would make that facial expression “in real life”.

So enraged was I at this point that this false debate was happening – “why are Brits pretending not to know what a frown is?” I thought – that I took to Mastodon. (Remember when we used to “take to Twitter”? Well now I guess we have to take to Mastodon. So I did.)

I didn’t think much of it after receiving a reply or two and putting my phone away. I’d had nothing from John or Merlin to indicate they’d read my post, so pretty much forgot about it… until one morning, sat on the sofa, when I heard something that made me make an involuntary noise.

You can hear what made me make that noise in this week’s featured minute, from 35:06 into episode #199 of Reconcilable Differences.

There’s a special thing that happens in the brain when we hear our name mentioned in a podcast or a radio show. I asked ChatGPT to give me a definition:

When we hear our own name, it activates these neural circuits, which in turn can make us more alert, attentive, and self-aware. The anterior cingulate cortex is also responsible for monitoring the environment for important or relevant information, and it is thought that hearing our own name activates this part of the brain because it is considered to be important or relevant information.

I don’t know if my cingulate cortex was stimulated, but I do know that it made me do a little yell-gasp.

I hadn’t really intended to put myself in the middle of this minute, but I’ve been enjoying this ongoing debate about what the word “frown” really means. Honestly, the moment I decided I’d simply slipped quietly through a wormhole in space, I could rest more easily. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in the UK thinks that frowning is something you do with the top of your face, and that’s fine, because I know that in my timeline, “turn that frown upside down” actually means something.

Let’s do this all again next week. Until then, keep smiling, and I will too.

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