Take care not to *smile*. (Wuthering Heights)

OED Loves Me Not

Senior Member
Japanese - Osaka
I’m going to tell it—but take care not to smile at any part of it.
("Wuthering Heights," Chapter 9, Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/768/768-h/768-h.htm
The words quoted above is uttered by Catherine to the housewife
Nelly Dean. Cathy has just said yes to the proposal by Edgar Linton.
Loving Heathcliff passionately, she wonders whether she is really
guiltless in marrying Edgar. So she is about to confess all her
troubles and hesitations to Nelly, telling her "not to smile."

Here, by the word "smile," Cathy evidently means "smile
in a manner that makes fun of her." She doesn't want Nelly
to laugh at her.

Here are my questions:

(1) When not accompanied with an adjective (such as wry) or adverb,
does the word "smile" always mean something positive in today's English?
I mean, in contemporary standard English, does "smile" (when not accompanied
with a modifier) always mean "smile in a favorable way, such as smile because
you're happy, smile because the person you're talking to is happy or amusing
(in a positive sense)"?

(2) Again, when not accompanied with an adjective or adverb, did
the word "smile" sometimes mean something negative
just like in this case with Cathy, in the English of old times?

(3) Does anybody know when the word "smile" come to
mean something positive at all times when not accompanied
with an adjective or adverb?
 
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  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    1. No. The language is too flexible for such a thing.

    2. I don't see why not. Many people are very satirical and/or ironic.

    3. I think the question is based on a false premise (that, at some stage, the word came always to have positive overtones).
     

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    Thank you, Thomas, for your answer. I'm afraid I'd made a false premise,
    just as you pointed out. However, in today's English, it seems true to me that
    the expression "Don't laugh" is predominantly used when the speaker wants the other party
    to listen carefully, instead of "Don't smile." Or am I wrong?
    Do people sometimes say "Don't smile" when they don't want to be
    made fun of when they are being serious, making a confession?
     

    owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    "Don't laugh" is predominantly used when the speaker wants the other party
    to listen carefully, instead of "Don't smile." Or am I wrong?
    This is true in AE. "Don't laugh when I tell you about...." -- this is a fairly common thing to say before you begin an anecdote. It means something like "Don't laugh at me/find me ridiculous when I tell you about X."

    I don't hear "take care not to smile" over here, but its meaning is easy to understand. It has roughly the same meaning as "don't laugh" in this context.
     

    OED Loves Me Not

    Senior Member
    Japanese - Osaka
    Hmmm, this is getting interestinger and interestinger.
    (Here, I'm writing a la "Alice in Wonderland.")
    Thank you very much indeed, all of you, for your kind
    comments.

    Owlman's comment to the effect that "Don't laugh" is
    predominantly used in these situations in American English
    instead of "Don't smile" explains my previous mistaken
    assumption that "smile" always carries a positive connotation.

    In fact, until only three years ago or so, I had always
    been immersed in American English, reading and hearing
    everything American. It is during these meager three
    years or so that I've been paying attention to
    British English.

    These days I'm really eager to learn everything
    English, Scottish, and Irish. Reading "Wuthering
    Heights" is part of these recent efforts of mine.
     
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