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Putting on a front

Posted by Smokey Stover on August 15, 2008 at 03:39

In Reply to: Putting on a front posted by ESC on August 14, 2008 at 21:40:

: : Does anyone know where the phrase "putting on a front" comes from?

: I've heard: putting up a front. Merriam-Webster has this meaning for "front":
: 1 a: forehead; also : the whole face b: external and often feigned appearance especially in the face of danger or adversity

This is a very useful figure of speech, that is, putting up a front as a means of concealing something, or putting ON a front, same thing. "The house was used as a front for a secret spy headquarters." Or: George wasn't actually the man in charge, he was the front man, fronting for the mob. On old buildings across America, you have false fronts, façades of a more grandiose appearance than what lies behind the front.

Mike used to put on a big front, pretending to know all about what was going on; but he was out of the loop entirely. You can also put up a front as well as putting one on, and it can mean something quite admirable. "No matter how big and experienced his attacker, Charles would put up a good front and go full bore into the fight, retaining his pride if not all of his skin."

As ESC has pointed out, putting on a front is like putting on a face, or a façade, representing yourself as you want to be seen.

Using "front" in a deceptive sense has been with us a long time, at least since 1905, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but from much earlier as well, I'm sure.

The OED does not, in any place that I have found, deal with putting up a front on a personal basis. The idea of using the face to represent yourself in a way not entirely representative goes way back in the animal kingdom, with animals facing off against each other and using their fiercest expressions to sow fear (and using other body language as appropriate, of course). When you see
a dog facing you with fangs prominently displayed, he may be a genuine threat; or he may be putting up a front.

I'm sure we could find examples of animals (including the human one) putting up a face that soothed and was inviting, as well.

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