I find one of the most confounding things in language right now is how people use the words “smile” and “grin”. It doesn’t happen often, but we seem to be at a stage where how people use words in practice is at odds with how they are defined.
The dictionary defines a grin as being a broad smile…basically a smile that shows teeth. Conversely, a smile is a grin without showing teeth. This distinction is best demonstrated in literature in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Cheshire Cat disappears leaving only his toothsome grin behind.
Funny thing, though. You scan the web, or you ask most people (and apparently many of these are American people) what the difference between a smile and a grin is, and they say that a smile is where you show teeth, and a grin is just a closed-mouth smile. They also expand on this by describing a smile as being more sincere than a grin. Why is this perceived definition of the word so at odds with the dictionary?
First, I think the dictionaries will eventually change to reflect this new perception, but it will take a while for them to catch up. Lexicographers are conservative people, but flexible. Once they are certain a language change is in effect, they will update their editorial content.
I don’t think you have to strain too much to understand the root of this division. It’s photographers. When you are having your picture taken and the photographer (professional or amateur doesn’t matter) wants you to look happy and show some teeth, do they ask you to “grin”, or do they ask you to “smile”? And there it is. All of our lives, in order to get us to flash those pearly whites, we are told to SMILE.
The realities are that most people don’t spend much time in a dictionary fretting about the subtleties of language. No, instead they rely on the acquired knowledge of how language is applied in the real world in order to internalize the meanings of words and how their context can affect meanings. If, since childhood, you’ve absorbed the usage of “smile” meaning “show some teeth [for the photo]“, well, it becomes a ingrained perception…regardless of what it says in the dictionary. I confess that, until I looked up the definitions myself, I was similarly misinformed.
So, are the people wrong? Nay. In regards to using their language, the people are always right. Dictionaries are not stone-carved monoliths freezing the meanings of words. They are tools that change with the world. Consider: before 1945, dictionaries defined a “computer” as a person who did calculations (i.e. computed numbers); after 1945, with the invention of ENIAC, arguably the first electronic computer, “computer” came to refer to the types of machines we still know by the same name. Man replaced by a machine.
You can’t help but smile. Or grin. Whatever.