Etymology: New Latin, from Latin, open mouth, from ringi to open the mouth; akin to Old Church Slavic rǫgŭ mockery
1: the gape of a bird's mouth
2 a: the mouth orifice b: a gaping grin or grimace
I'm of two minds about the word "rictus." It's a Latinism, but one of the better ones--so brisk and unadorned that it could qualify as an honorary Anglo Saxonism. Much different from, say, exsanguinate or defenistrate--both built up out of Latinate morphemes like Lego structures, and about as unwieldy.
(A friend and I managed to work both of the latter terms into a conversation debriefing last night's episode of "Heroes," and the fun was that we knew they're linguistic Rube Goldberg devices--a complicated way of doing something simple. I think one of the few benefits of the wave after wave of police procedurals on broadcast TV in recent years is that they've popularized a perfectly compact and muscular substitute for exsanguinate: bleed out. But I digress.)
On the other hand, while I like the directness of rictus, I can't deny that there's always been something about the word that just plain creeps me out. Even Merriam-Webster can't define it without using unpleasant g-words like "a gaping grin or grimace."
Gag me. No one would ever use the word rictus to describe, say, Molly Ringwald's adorable pout in "Sixteen Candles."
We reserve the word for mouths like an unbleeding wound: lipless, ghastly, twisted--and barely concealing teeth like broken glass. Or a decrepit picket fence. Or tombstones.
The point is, when something gets called a rictus, it means we've already decided it's not something we want to let the baby's fingers anywhere near.
All of which is my etymological ground for backing Lance Mannion when he says that however well Rudy Giuliani plays to the loyalists in the whackjob right at the moment, the months of near-constant television exposure he would receive if he were to make it through the primaries into the general would not work to his advantage:
[P]eople are going to look at his long, narrow head, that high bony bald dome, the sunken eyes, the livid skin, and that toothy rictus of a grin and they're going to say, "Whoa! Who let Death in the room?"
He will frighten children.
Rictus--it's the kiss of death.
Read the whole thing. It's going on the Readings list in the sidebar, too.
(Image sources, top to bottom: University of Central Florida Libraries, Jawsmovie.com, IMDB, Fora.tv, and The X-Files Department.)