Let’s face it: the countenance familiar to modern speakers does not bear an obvious resemblance to its Latin root continēre, meaning “to hold together” (a root it shares with contain). But the path between continēre and countenance becomes clearer when we think of the figurative “holding together” present in the idea of restraint. When countenance was first used in English (having traveled from Latin through Anglo-French) it referred to a person’s appearance or behavior—their demeanor—which is a product of restraint, or the lack thereof. And from “demeanor” it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to “facial expression.” A few centuries after that development, in the late 16th century, countenance faced a new task head-on—use as a verb meaning “to extend approval or toleration to.”
Noun… his white countenance was rendered eerie by the redness of the sagging lids below his eyes …—John Updike, The Afterlife, 1994You could see it in his frame and deportment … a beaming countenance, expansive salutations, a warm handshake …—Simon Schama, Granta, Autumn 1990All, all are kind to me but their tones fall strangely on my ear & their countenances meet mine not like home faces …—Emily Dickinson17 Feb. 1848,
in Selected Letters, (1914) 1986Before receiving him, Henry had so possessed himself that no one could guess from his countenance with what sentiments he remembered the young king.—Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, 1950
The photograph showed his somber countenance.
a pleasant countenance that puts visitors at ease VerbBut there are only two logical choices … . If you can't countenance the first, you have to accept the second.—Anna Quindlen, Newsweek, 6 Aug. 2007… the constellation of family emotions—love, obedience, rivalry, repression—can turn a family into a moral system of its own in which even the greatest horrors can be countenanced in the name of loyalty and love …—Scott Turow, Times Literary Supplement, 15 Mar. 1991They disapproved of the marriage, and could not be expected to countenance it.—Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891
I don't countenance such behavior in children of any age. countenanced the delays and inconveniences of traveling by air with good graceSee More
Recent Examples on the Web
For Miko, the flare-up is merely the latest demonstration of Ben’s unearned superiority, as well as his refusal to countenance feelings and perspectives that don’t align with his own.—Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug. 2023 Yet events in Ukraine have not reached a point where Ukrainians can countenance compromise.—Christopher Blattman, Foreign Affairs, 29 Nov. 2022 The prospect of an outright nuclear war with Russia may indeed have convinced NATO member states that their direct involvement in the conflict was too dangerous to countenance.—Andrew F. Krepinevich, Foreign Affairs, 22 Nov. 2022 Cromer’s brooding countenance captures Vanya’s uncontainable frustration.—Peter Marks, Washington Post, 14 July 2023 Russia’s war effectively puts a block on NATO membership for Ukraine, since extending the bloc’s collective defense commitments to Kyiv would bring the US and its allies into direct conflict with Russia, and that’s a situation that western leaders aren’t prepared to countenance.—Natalia Drozdiak, Fortune, 11 July 2023 Throughout, Benzema had the countenance of a man who had been recently startled.—Rory Smith, New York Times, 9 June 2023 The tone and timbre of his voice, his attire and his countenance evoke the sermons of my childhood.—Caleb Gayle, New York Times, 14 Mar. 2023 Like Libra, Aquarius has a tendency to intellectualize, and like Libra, Aquarius can give off a cool countenance.—Gala Mukomolova, refinery29.com, 15 Oct. 2021
With vanishingly few exceptions, nearly every politician in Washington refuses to countenance major spending reform.—David Harsanyi, National Review, 14 Sep. 2023 And Karloff would still countenance discrimination late into his career.—Hazlitt, 6 Sep. 2023 But Ukrainian concessions appear to be something many in Western countries are willing to countenance.—Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 21 Aug. 2023 Franks knows the scent of damp earth under plow, the touch of sap on a cold tree, and how to write about men who cannot countenance the wildness of women.—The Week Staff, The Week, 26 Aug. 2023 Stunningly, a third or so of Republican Party voters seem willing not only to countenance Trump’s criminality and moral turpitude, but actually celebrate it.—Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times, 15 Aug. 2023 During the Cold War, Washington routinely countenanced illiberal practices to protect the liberal order—for example, supporting anticommunist military regimes in South Korea and Taiwan as bulwarks against more brutal nearby powers.—Victor Cha, Foreign Affairs, 14 Dec. 2022 When slides of Hiroshima are projected at Los Alamos, some people look away, unable to countenance what their loyal efforts have wrought.—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 20 July 2023 In fact, Chinese leaders, who tolerate the presence of tens of thousands of troops stationed near their borders, appear willing to allow the United States to remain a major player in Asia, something Americans would never countenance in the Western Hemisphere.—Daniel Bessner, Harper’s Magazine , 22 June 2022 See More
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'countenance.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
Middle English contenance, from Anglo-French cuntenance, contenance, from Medieval Latin continentia, from Latin, restraint, from continent-, continens, present participle of continēre to hold together — more at contain