Descriptions That Make My Head Tilt

Stacey Kite

Stacey Kite

There are a lot of descriptive phrases that I encounter as a reader that amuse and/or confuse me. I thought I’d share a few of them with you, and hopefully, give you a laugh.

First up—noses.

Heroes and romantic leads often have aquiline noses. (Isn’t that a great word—aquiline? It rolls off the tongue and implies sophistication.)

On the other side, villains and comedic characters are plagued with beaky noses.

jpeg-11-16-post-aquiline-noseSee the difference?

Me neither.

If the lead is an anti-hero, the same nose could be described as Roman or Patrician, I guess, but hooked is probably more of a bad-guy descriptor.

Some authors give a character a blade of a nose. What does that phrase mean? I thought I knew. I thought it meant that the character had a narrow nose when viewed from the front.

jpeg-11-16-post-blade-nose

But in a book I read recently, the author described someone with a blade of a nose that was flat to the character’s face. Huh? I can’t even give you a sketch of that one because I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to look like. Either I’ve never really known what that phrase meant, or that author didn’t. (Just so you know, I’m not banking on me in this contest.)

And what does hatchet faced mean?

jpeg-11-16-post-hatchet-face-edge

 

 

 

Is that a straight on view?

 

 

 

jpeg-11-16-post-hatchet-face-edge-copy

 

 

 

Or is the phrase describing the character’s profile?

 

 

Speaking of faces, high cheekbones is another puzzler for me. If having high cheekbones makes a person attractive, why don’t authors ever describe an unfortunate person as having low cheekbones? If some people have high ones, according to a standard bell curve,

jpeg-11-16-post-bell-curve

an equal number of people should have abnormally low ones, right?

The problem comes when you look at the structure of the human skull.

jpeg-11-16-post-skull

 

The cheekbone, i.e. the zygomatic bone, is part of the eye socket. If someone actually had low cheekbones, their eyes would fall down and out, or at least slump to the side like those of a melting waxwork figure.

I was going to include my sketch of that, but … ewww. Instead, here is a comparison of a person from the ooo-ah side of the attractiveness bell curve, Johnny Depp, to someone from the oh-you-poor-baby end. For the latter, I chose Emperor Nero of Rome, (37 AD to 68 AD), because: 1. I watched a documentary that featured a lot of statues of Nero, so now, unfortunately, I have his likeness engraved in my brain, 2. he’s as low on the pretty curve as Johnny is high on it, and 3. he’s dead, and therefore unlikely to sue me.

jpeg-11-16-post-johnny-vs-nero

Seriously, pretty much everyone’s cheekbones are in the same neighborhood. There’s not that much variation—maybe a centimeter, max. That’s not enough to hardly notice, let alone to change a Nero into a Johnny. Nero was homely, not because he had low cheekbones, but because his eyes were waaaay too close together, he had a massive chin waddle and his cheeks were as puffy as a greedy squirrel’s on a fall-fest nut-binge. Basically, he looked like a smiley-face sans the smile.

Now, Johnny Depp has awesome hollows below his cheekbones. Is that what people really mean when they say he has great cheekbones? That the cheekbones are prominent in comparison to the cheeks i.e. that he has really cut cheeks? So why don’t writers describe a gorgeous face as having hollow cheeks, cut cheeks, beautiful cheeks, perfect cheeks …

Oh. I think I get it now.

Never mind.

With that, I’m switching to a safer topic: skin tone.

The first time I read the phrase olive skin, as a kid, it really confused me. When I read olive, I pictured—

jpeg11-16-post-green-olive

 

 

 

 

—or—

jpeg-11-16-post-black-olives

 

 

 

 

Olives were black or green. Though I knew there were people who had very dark skin tones, I could tell from the context that wasn’t what the author meant. So, the images in my head conjured by the phrase olive-skinned were —

jpeg-11-16-post-alien-and-frogman

— and —

jpeg-11-16-post-seasick

Eventually, after reading that same description over and over again, in many different books, I learned from the context that olive-skinned meant someone with a medium skin tone. That still makes no sense to me. In art, when a pigment is labeled olive, it is green!

jpeg-11-16-post-green-blobs

See? Olive means green. Not green with golden undertones. Not brown, or red, or black.  It means green! (I was going to include acrylic and water-color blobs in my lineup to really drive the point home, but digging the paints out of their respective tubs looked like too much effort. Just, trust me—they’re green, too.)

As part of my research for this post, I set out to look up the origin of the phrase olive skin. Evidently, lots of people have opinions on the subject, but they were mostly along the lines of “I think …” or definitive statements without references or citations. Here are the three most common explanations I found:

  1. People of Mediterranean decent were described as olive-skinned because olives were grown in that region.

For all I know, this answer might be true, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Would you describe someone as pineapple skinned because their ancestors were Hawaiian? Or banana skinned if they were from New Guinea? I wouldn’t—not unless the character in question actually looked like a pineapple or a banana.

  1. Not all olives are green and black. Some, like Kalamata olives, are brown, which is why people with middle-range skin tones are called olive-skinned.

Since I am not an olive expert, I can’t rule this one out completely, either. But to me, Kalamata olives look dark, purply-red, and nothing like any actual human skin tone that I’ve ever seen.

  1. Olive skin does not refer to the color of an olive, but to the color of olive oil which is yellow with green undertones. 

jpeg-11-16-post-jaundice

 

 

 

To me, yellow skin just says jaundice.

 

 

Maybe it’s not important what writers describe so much as how they choose to do it. Describe a man using the terms aquiline nose, high cheekbones and olive skin and we know he’s an odds-on-favorite for the romantic lead. Conversely, if you give him a beaky nose, puffy cheeks and jaundiced skin, the readers know to boo and hiss.

One response to “Descriptions That Make My Head Tilt

  1. Wow! Good job clearly illustrating why generic descriptions are not a writer’s best friends.

Leave a comment. Your name and email address are not required.