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."

Examples of rictus in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Coverage of his personal appearances focused on his obvious discomfort in meeting with strangers and his fruitless efforts to laugh or even crack a smile, which tended to produce only a hideous facial rictus. Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, 22 Jan. 2024 Portman and Moore don’t look like average women but resemble drag queens specializing in stealthy passion and uneasy self-control — one a professional parasite and the other a pathetic sociopath, each fronting rictus grins. Armond White, National Review, 10 Jan. 2024 Charles is all neurosis and shame, hunched over, face frozen in a rictus of repulsion at his own existence, worried constantly about rejection. Isaac Butler, The New Yorker, 1 Dec. 2023 But when a pretty grad student comes in one day complaining of an evil, smirking presence that's followed her for years, then suddenly breaks into a frozen rictus of a grin and essentially slices her own face off in the waiting room, Rose is more than shaken. Kristen Baldwin, EW.com, 30 Sep. 2022 His face remained a rictus of vague pleasure. Andrew Martin, Harper's Magazine, 26 Oct. 2021 By pouring plaster into these holes and then removing the surrounding ash, the archaeologists were left with exquisitely detailed facsimiles of Pompeians, in some cases showing the type of fabric worn by the victims and even faces contorted eerily in the rictus of death. Geoffrey Giller, Scientific American, 20 Feb. 2014 The earliest work rendered into color is a Cycladic figure, with an oversize head connected to an abstracted body, now with a small triangle of cinnabar to create a rictus of red lips, dots on the cheeks and arching eyebrows. Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, 11 Aug. 2022 Instead, the character is typically portrayed by someone in a bulbous costume with an unnerving stare and rictus smile who never speaks. Miles Klee, Rolling Stone, 31 Jan. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'rictus.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

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 20 May. 2024.

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