What Does “Mien” Mean?

By Maeve Maddox

background imageUntil recently, I thought everyone agreed on the meaning of mien. Dictionaries do.

Someone’s mien is their general appearance and manner, especially the expression on their face, which shows what they are feeling or thinking.—Collins Dictionary

a person’s look or manner, esp. one of a particular kind indicating character or mood.—Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words

Here are examples of mien used with its most common meaning:

Kindersley’s description is echoed word for word by Innes Munro, who was in India around the same time: “All the natives have such a genteel and delicate mien that, together with their dress, a stranger is apt to take them for women.”—Colonial Voices: The Discourses of Empire, Pramod K. Nayar.

Judi Dench has always been so commanding on film that it’s hard at first to adjust to her in Philomena, where she plays an aging Irish woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. But it doesn’t take long for her darting eyes and timorous mien to convince us.—Review of Philomena, Harry Kloman, Pittsburgh City Paper

Personifications as well as persons have miens:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;— Essay on Man, Alexander Pope

The OED tells me that, by extension, even a plant, a landscape, or some other object can be said to have mien and gives these examples:

Little Owl has low-browed, frowning mien…

Flopsy and Mopsy …miniature poodles of discouraging mien.

Judging by these definitions and examples, the noun mien conveys something about the appearance and mannerisms of a person, personification, or object.

That is not the meaning of the word as it is used in the following passage:

I must accept that my real love language is soothing my fear and I may never get what I want in that mien.—opinion piece, New York Times.

The article’s topic is the different ways in which love may be expressed. The writer seems to be using mien in the sense of form, style, manner, genre, or type of loving expression.

Mien is not a common word outside fiction and some kinds of nonfiction. It ranks in the OED’s fourth band of frequency, which puts it with words like insectivore, egregious, and sequester. A question posed to the editors of Cliff Notes suggests that the word may be unfamiliar to high school and college students:

I ran across the word mien in a book. Is it a typo?

The answer from Cliffs Notes:

Probably not. Mien is a real word that refers to a person’s appearance, or the way someone carries himself or herself. Everyone has a certain demeanor—a characteristic manner that gives insight into an individual’s emotions and overall character.

The answer goes on to reassure the student that “Mien appears in many great literary works, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. [Dr. Jekyll is described as having “an infinite sadness of mien.”]

Looking for additional odd uses of mien to mean something other than the usual definition. I browsed the fraze.it site, which gave 156 sentences with mien. For the most part, when the word wasn’t used in the context of a Chinese dish or surname, most of the examples I read reflected the usual meaning, but a few were puzzling.

But even in a Napa context, Zinfandel should take a friendlier mien than Cabernet.

If I could finally hone the mien, I could probably pass for a member of the golf club.

In this mien, the Bushies are eerily confident that things are going to turn around for them in the coming months.

Prototypes of a bygone era, they faced relatively young, vigorous opponents of modern mien and moderate views.

Mien is often listed as a synonym for appearance. Writers whose only acquaintance with the word is from looking up a synonym for appearance may not be aware of the particular type of appearance that mien references. This example at wordhippo supports this possibility.

Yet, again, I could not escape that there was something about her eyes, something terribly alert and competent that defied her physical mien.

The writer doesn’t seem to know that “alert and competent eyes” describes the very thing meant by mien.

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1 Response to “What Does “Mien” Mean?”

  • Kelly

    That is so strange. A couple of those seem like the author might have misspelled vein by swapping the vowels, and then a machine spell-checker changed it to mien.

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