Words We're Watching

The Origin of the 'Ugly Cry'

No memes, just meanings

There are countless ways to express sadness, and as many words to describe it: weeping, wailing, snivelling, blubbering. But none has captivated our modern attention like the ugly cry.

The ugly cry started, lexically speaking, as mere ugly crying:

For a minute she almost enjoyed the attention till the thought, Oh, it's true! struck her and pulled her mouth into ugly crying.
—Betty Sue Cummings, Hew Against The Grain, 1977

ugly cry

Though the term 'ugly crying' can be traced to the late 1970s, it rocketed to fame with Oprah Winfrey in the early 2000s.

This is a little different than previous uses of ugly crying we have in our files. Those early uses refer specifically to the horrific sound of the crying; this use from 1977 refers to the smudgy visage of one who is crying hard. You know the look: mouth open in a grimace, nose red, eyes puffy and nearly closed. Not the dainty tears of Victorian heroines, but a good, ugly cry.

Ugly crying was used generally in somber contexts, but its descendant, ugly cry face, was not. Ugly cry face first showed up in a 1991 issue of Glamour, where it was used in an article about Hollywood’s reigning lacrimosal queens:

Or Holly Hunter, whose bawling-at-work scenes in Broadcast News were believably screwy. Equally skillful (see above): Jodie Foster's dignity in The Accused; Laura Dern's reassuringly ugly cry faces in Smooth Talk and Blue Velvet...
Glamour, July 1991

Ugly cry face doesn’t have a ton of use (though it has had a resurgence thanks to the Kardashians), but most of its use is in reference to actresses emoting.

The next evolutionary stage of the phrase was ugly cry. This shows up in the late 1990s:

I’d do something about the look on Luke’s face when Vader tells him he is his father. Talk about "ugly cry" ... eughhhhh...
alt.fan.starwars, 16 Aug. 1999

though the phrase rocketed to fame with Oprah Winfrey:

During that whole tape session, I could see you doing what I've often tried to do on TV. You're fighting the ugly cry, when your lips start to go.
—Oprah Winfrey on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 11 Nov. 2001

Oprah first used the phrase in 2000, and then again in 2001, 2002, 2003, and so on. She became the daytime queen of the ugly cry, giving in to them during interviews (most notably with Mary Tyler Moore) and talking at length about them. Soon, the ugly cry was the province of women—our evidence shows that ugly cry is used overwhelmingly with female referent—and the subject of countless articles about the science of the ugly cry, the social politics of the ugly cry, the health benefits of the ugly cry, even the best soundtrack for the ugly cry.

Words We're Watching talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.

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