A face that has been “lived in”. It’s an expression that brings a smile of recognition and warmth. Growing older has its drawbacks, but maybe there are compensations too.
The jowl is the fleshy part of the lower jaw, so the idiom cheek by jowl means cheek to cheek, i.e. very close together. But while cheek to cheek is usually good – it was used by George Gershwin to describe dancing couples – cheek by jowl is often negative. Imagine living cheek by jowl in cramped conditions.
An early instance of cheek by jowl is found in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Follow! nay, I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl.” In other words, I’ll stick to you in case you try to slip away. But Shakespeare did not originate the phrase. The play was written in the 1590s, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists an earlier example from 1577. Some think the phrase goes as far back as the Anglo-Saxons: cheek is the Anglo-Saxon ceca, and céac-bán, cheek-bone. Jowl is ceole (the jaw).
Several famous faces are noted for both their cheek and their jowl.
Sid James (1913-76) was a South African born English-based actor and comedian who made his name as Tony Hancock’s co-star in the BBC sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour. James was a star of the Carry On films, in which he played wise-cracking, cheeky, often lecherous Cockney characters. In six of them he actually bore his own name: Sidney Fiddler, Sid Carter, Sid Plummer, Sidney Bliss, Sidney Boggle and Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond. It was his lived in face that gave the game away: a crumpling from which his trademark “dirty laugh” would inevitably emerge triumphant.
The English stage, film and television actor Edward Fox (born 1937) has a plummy voice enhanced by distinctive facial landscaping. Throughout the 1960s he worked mostly on stage, including a turn as Hamlet at London’s Young Vic. Fox took roles in major British films including Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Battle of Britain (1969) and The Go-Between (1970), before memorably playing the assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973. He is also recognized for portraying Edward VIII in the British TV series Edward & Mrs. Simpson (1978) – the jowl in the crown, one might say – and kind Mr Brownlow in BBC TV’s Oliver (2007).
Geoffrey Palmer (born 1927) is another English actor whose crinkliness lends him gravitas. He acted in major productions at the Royal National Theatre in London, where he was directed by Laurence Olivier in J. B. Priestley’s Eden End. Many of his television roles have been middle-class dullards and he is well known for deadpan drollery. Three sitcom characters brought him national fame: the hapless brother-in-law in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), the dentist husband Ben Parkinson in Carla Lane’s Butterflies (1978-83), and Lionel Hardcastle in the much loved As Time Goes By (1992-2005).
And then there’s Rembrandt. The Dutchman’s paintings and etchings are beyond compare and his self-portraits (of which there are more than 90) form a unique biographical sequence in which the artist portrays himself without a trace of vanity, delighting in every deeply formed wrinkle and jowl. Another face that has been well and truly lived in!