I've just finished reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibilitynot for the first time, probably for the fourth or fifth time. I started reading her when I was a teenager and I try to re-read one of her novels every year. They never disappoint, and at each stage of my life, I find new facets to explore in her analysis of human nature and relations, and in her unparalleled mastery of the expressiveness of English.

What intrigued me in Sense and Sensibility this time was Austen's use of a few words that characterize the wealth of information that her characters glean about each other through their mutual conversations and perceptions. These succinct insights are, of course, passed along to the reader in the course of the narrative. What I'm puzzling about now is whether people really were attuned to perceiving each other differently 200 years ago from the way we do it today—or whether in fact we observe the same things in each other, but we have left behind Austen's very elegant ways of expressing them. This will make more sense if lay out the terms that especially interest me: countenance, address, and manners.

Austen has a habit of sketching a thumbnail of characters for her readers when they first appear in real time in a narrative, either through the voice of the narrator or through one of the characters themselves. Here's a hilarious example of a character whom we have already been set up to dislike because of her earlier reported actions, and whom we are meeting for the first time:

Mrs. Ferrars was a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature. She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.

Countenance occurs in this passage, but let's deal with manners first; it's the easiest of the three because I think its meaning has changed the least in 200 years. We still talk about manners today, but in somewhat limited contexts—we regard them as especially important to inculcate in children, but we seem to assume they're fixed after that, and we don't make much comment about them in adults unless they are particularly bad. Not so in the world of Jane Austen. Manners are one of the scalar parameters on which Austen's characters actively evaluate one another, and one which the omniscient narrator often includes in introductory sketches. Manners occurs 127 times per million words in Jane Austen, compared with about 5 times per million in a corpus of standard contemporary English. Here are a few examples:

Her understanding was beyond every suspicion, quick and clear; and her manners were the mirror of her own modest and elegant mind. (Mansfield Park)

Manners were all that could be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than they had yet had of Mr. Churchill. She believed every body found his manners pleasing. (Emma)

Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. (Pride and Prejudice)

Jane Austen uses address in a couple of ways that have not survived intact in contemporary English. One way is roughly equal to "instance of speaking to someone," as for example here:

. . .as Isabella had arrived nearly five minutes before her friend, her first address naturally was, "My dearest creature, what can have made you so late?"

The meaning of the other, more interesting address in Austen is harder to pin down, but comes closest to the sense "the manner of speaking to another individual". It's more subtle than that, however, and it also occurs frequently in Austen's characterizations. Here are some examples.

He was a very good looking young man; height, air, address, all were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father's. (Emma)

Though his person and address are very well, he appears, both to Mr. Vernon and me, a very weak young man. (Lady Susan)

[He] had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. (Northanger Abbey)

His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. ( Pride and Prejudice).

Though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike. (Sense and Sensibility)

How would we express such an idea today? Would we just say someone's "way of talking" and does that capture Austen's sense? I think the fact that Austen had a fully developed concept of address, and used it so regularly in her characterizations, helps us to develop an appreciation of the quality she is talking about—a quality that we do not single out and recognize so easily today.

And now back to countenance: the sense "the appearance conveyed by a person's face," as modernly defined, is merely a shadow of, a poor substitute for what Austen means by countenance. It's another favorite word of hers, occurring nearly 200 times per million words in her work (it occurs about two times per million words in a standard corpus of more contemporary English). We have seen it already in some of the quotes above; here are others:

Henry, though not handsome, had air and countenance; the manners of both were lively and pleasant, and Mrs. Grant immediately gave them credit for everything else. (Mansfield Park)

He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. (Northanger Abbey)

Though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike. (Sense and Sensibility)

Jane Austen would never be faulted for leaving characters insufficiently revealed, and yet she manages to delineate them so clearly with words that hardly circulate today. How, for example, would you say "Though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible" in 21st-century English? A rendering along the lines of "He's not that hot but he has a sensitive look" doesn't really get there. I'm inclined to take a Whorfian view of the power of Jane Austen and conclude that the richness of her language—a richness that has been somewhat abandoned in the modern vernacular—is partly what enables her readers to understand so much, on the basis of very few words.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 2nd 2015, 7:18 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Brilliant read. I totally agree - I am a committed Austen fan and never cease to be amazed at the increased understanding I gain about her characters as I re read often. Your final example is enlightening - "He's not that hot but he has a sensitive look" reveals nothing when compared to the Austen description. This is an article I am saving for some happy searching of my own. Thanks
Thursday July 2nd 2015, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
Excellent article and entertaining, too! It seems our vocabulary is gradually shrinking with respect to non-tech matters. Pretty soon we'll be left with "awesome" versus "crap."
Thursday July 2nd 2015, 8:47 AM
Comment by: Lisa B. (Buffalo, NY)
Thanks for this lovely examination of Austen's vocabulary. A minor quibble: Your third from last example is from Mansfield Park, not Emma.
Thursday July 2nd 2015, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for that correction, Lisa. I was working from a corpus that I could see had some labeling problems, but I couldn't identify exactly what they were. I urge anyone who wants to search Austen (and some other authors) systematically to try the corpora at


Account setup is free and only takes a minute.
Friday July 3rd 2015, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Superb! Thank you, Orin. I love her like a sister and her descriptions make me shiver with delight.
Saturday July 4th 2015, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I am so affected by your address, sir, that it puts me all out of countenance.
Tuesday July 7th 2015, 1:35 AM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
Thanks for (re)acquainting us a with such a graceful style of expression. It is a manner of speaking/writing that is far more emotive, finely descriptive and clever than that which we are exposed to today.
Friday July 10th 2015, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Linda H. (Napa, CA)
I think that demeanor might be a word that we would use today instead of address.
Sunday July 12th 2015, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Insightful observations; graceful column. Really enjoyed it.
Thursday July 16th 2015, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bravo, Orin! Excellent!Jane Austen had an unparalleled insight into human nature, plus a wit sharp as a razor and the confidence to wield it freely to slice the pompous down to size. Very interesting about her use of manners, countenance, and address to describe a character's way of being with other people. Our use of these words may have changed, but human nature has not. I have no trouble seeing real people through her deliciously savage prose.
Sunday September 13th 2015, 9:42 PM
Comment by: John B.
Have read and taught Austen in her guise as brilliant psychologist to resident psychiatrists to whom I have tried to impart the necessity of observation. In this talk-ridden culture of ours I believe that we tend to ignore almost anything that is not spoken, in part, because we are inundate with floods of meaningless babble and also feel free often to blurt out whatever pops into our heads. In Austen's time much less was said or allowed to be said so much was made of subtle shades of meaning an innuendo. One read so much more into one's "address" and "carriage" and even complexion. The discussion in the essay wisely takes note of these almost untranslatable terms which Freud, I suspect, tried to appraise with "hovering attention," that is, attention to the entire countenance, manner, and address as well as the words of his patients.
So much is lost by listening to patients whilst filling out a check list of symptoms. How much more when we listen to our friends and families! Alas!

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