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The Sardonic Smile

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:05pm

A “sardonic smile” is one of those smug, disdainful, smiles. It’s a sort of a smirk – the kind of smile that says, “Yeah, right.”

But why is it called “sardonic”?

We ran across an item recently in Scientific American that gives the history of the phrase while pointing to a new study about the source of the phenomenon, and it’s interesting stuff:

A toxin that forces a condemned victim to smile really seems to exist. The Greek bard Homer coined the term “sardonic grin” after ceremonial killings that supposedly took place in Sardinia, where Phoenician colonists gave to elderly people who could no longer take care of themselves and to criminals an intoxicating potion that put a smile on their face. (They were then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.) Scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy and their colleagues think they now have identified the herb responsible: hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata), which is common on Sardinia, where it is popularly known as “water celery.” Their analysis revealed the presence of highly toxic chemicals in the plant that could make facial muscles contract into a grimace, or rictus. The finding appears in the May 22 Journal of Natural Products.

Oenanthe_crocata2


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A “sardonic smile” is one of those smug, disdainful, smiles. It’s a sort of a smirk – the kind of smile that says, “Yeah, right.”

But why is it called “sardonic”?

We ran across an item recently in Scientific American that gives the history of the phrase while pointing to a new study about the source of the phenomenon, and it’s interesting stuff:

A toxin that forces a condemned victim to smile really seems to exist. The Greek bard Homer coined the term “sardonic grin” after ceremonial killings that supposedly took place in Sardinia, where Phoenician colonists gave to elderly people who could no longer take care of themselves and to criminals an intoxicating potion that put a smile on their face. (They were then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.) Scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy and their colleagues think they now have identified the herb responsible: hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata), which is common on Sardinia, where it is popularly known as “water celery.” Their analysis revealed the presence of highly toxic chemicals in the plant that could make facial muscles contract into a grimace, or rictus. The finding appears in the May 22 Journal of Natural Products.

Oenanthe_crocata2


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