What does the word ‘lineaments’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: lineaments.

When I read the novel Brazzaville Beach, by William Boyd (shown above), late last year, I wrote myself a brief note about the word lineaments. Here’s how Boyd used it:

Hope always looked intently at her sister, Faith, whenever she had the opportunity, searching for lineaments of her own looks in her sibling’s.

I didn’t know the meaning of the term and, if forced to guess, I would have said it meant “similarities.” Alas, my undergraduate degree was in political science, not geology. So I had no idea a lineament was a linear feature on the earth’s surface, such as a fault. And in literary terms, as used here, a lineament is a distinctive feature or characteristic, especially of the face.

If forced to select a lineament for William Boyd’s face, I would say it was his (somewhat) chubby cheeks. Or perhaps his disarming smile. Or maybe the way in which his right eye appears to turn ever so slightly downward.

The word, which dates back to the early 15th century originates from the Middle French lineament, which in turn comes from the Latin lineamentum meaning “a line, stroke, mark.” The figurative sense of “a characteristic” dates to the 1630s.

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