ric·​tus ˈrik-təs How to pronounce rictus (audio)
: the opening or gape (see gape entry 2 sense 2a) of a mouth
especially : the gape of a bird's mouth
: the edge or margin of the upper or lower mandible of an animal (such as a bird or snake)
also : the point or angle where the upper and lower mandible of an animal meet
: a rigid grin or grimace usually with the mouth open or lips parted
At the beach bar of a St Lucia hotel, Doc pulls his face into a welcoming rictus and steels himself for the Happy Hour invasion.Rhoda Koenig
There, on the monitors in freeze frame, is Jack Nicholson, a hideous rictus carved onto his leering countenance.Bill Zehme
sometimes used before another noun
… Billie Shepherd tried to spice up the ice with a girl-powered routine but was so nervous, her face was frozen in a rictus grin.Michael Hogan

Did you know?

Rictus began its English career in the late 17th century as a technical term for the mouth of an animal, the new science of zoology clearly calling for some Latin to set its lingo apart from the language of farmers. In Latin, rictus means "an open mouth"; it comes from the verb ringi, meaning "to open the mouth." Zoologists couldn't keep the word to themselves, though. English speakers liked its sound too much, and they thought it would be good for referring to a gaping grin or grimace. James Joyce used the word in both Ulysses (1922) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), writing in the latter, "Creatures were in the field…. Goatish creatures with human faces…. A rictus of cruel malignity lit up greyly their old bony faces."

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Reilly, who is thirty-three, has high cheekbones, a rictus grin, and curiously expressive nostrils. Michael Schulman, The New Yorker, 4 Jan. 2023 His menacing rictus and unnerving hat-band strip of teeth? Sarah Larson, The New Yorker, 13 Oct. 2022 One saunters around like a space-alien geisha, one is like a robot with the Nun’s rictus-grin jaws, and one resembles a Francis Bacon portrait of a mouth frozen open in mid-scream. Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 4 Oct. 2022 The scares are slower-burning, such as a faraway shot of someone’s face scrunching into an unnatural rictus grin. David Sims, The Atlantic, 1 May 2022 In one, from 2016, Anthony Weiner is seen with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Huma Abedin, his mouth screwed in a rictus grin; in another, from 2015, a young Justin Bieber is staring off into space with a vacant smile on his lips. The New Yorker, 29 Jan. 2022 Prince’s expression — a rictus of embarrassment, confusion and guilt — belongs in a gallery. A.o. Scott & Wesley Morris, New York Times, 7 Dec. 2017 And there, standing at the bench, his face contorted in a rictus of hateful intensity, was Mike Krzyzewski. Will Blythe, Esquire, 1 Apr. 2010 Watching the way photography froze many of their faces into a rictus of rage was chilling. Wesley Morris, New York Times, 23 Aug. 2017 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'rictus.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History


New Latin, from Latin, open mouth, from ringi to open the mouth; akin to Old Church Slavonic rǫgŭ mockery

First Known Use

1685, in the meaning defined at sense 2a

Time Traveler
The first known use of rictus was in 1685


Dictionary Entries Near rictus

Cite this Entry

“Rictus.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rictus. Accessed 3 Feb. 2023.

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