The rise of “face fell”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:22, NIV

HA HA!  Your face fell off!

This is a strange little expression. The original Greek is strange (or at least rare). And the history of the use of “face fell” as an idiomatic expression for, “become sad or gloomy” is really weird.

Let’s begin with the English expression and work back toward the Greek expression.

Here’s what the ngram chart looks like for the words “face fell”:

The expression was almost unheard of until around 1860 when it began to ascend in use until it peaked at the beginning of the 20th century. Then it slowly began to decline in usage until around 1980 where it turned around and started being used again. After about 2000 it ascended very rapidly.

In the early part of the 20th century the expression seemed to have two main uses:

  1. to rest your head, usually on someone’s shoulder.
  2. to change the expression of your face showing sadness or a sense of impending calamity.

Starting in the 1980’s examples seem to be mostly about the second sense. I haven’t looked at it in depth but that seems to be the general trend.

This brings up a big question: Why did “face fell” rise? Could the NIV translation, first released in 1973 and 1978 have exerted an influence on writers who began to use the expression in their own writing? I suppose it’s possible.

I had always assumed that there was some Greek expression behind this that caused the NIV translators to use this expression. But all the English translations that predate NIV simply say something like, “Hearing this, he was sad.”

So we have a translation mystery here. Why would the NIV translators use an uncommon idiom to translate the original expression in Greek? NIV was so influential that when NLT came out they used the same expression. WEB translation is also guilty of following the NIV.

Interestingly, RSV connects this passage to Genesis 4:5-6 using “countenance fell” in both passages.

What is the Greek then?  στυγνος is a very uncommon verb in Greek occurring only twice in the New Testament. The first example we’ve already mentioned. The second example is in Matthew 16:3:

and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

Matthew 16:3, NIV

A related adjective in Titus 3:3 is translated “being hated.”

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Titus 3:3

AT Robertson defines the verb, “sombre, gloomy, like a lowering cloud” in an attempt perhaps to connect the passages from Matthew and Mark.

Well, my face has fallen because I haven’t been able to solve the question of why this expression was used in the NIV or why it surged in usage in the late 20th century. But even so these kinds of studies rock my face off*. I hope you enjoyed it, too.

* “You rock my face off” has only appeared in the 21st century. It means, “I think you’re terrific.”

Some of the tools I found useful for looking at this topic are: (For parallel translations) (For interlinearizations, Greek and AT Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament) (For usage of the expression “face fell” over the years) for the RSV.

19 thoughts on “The rise of “face fell”

  1. David McKay says:

    David, this expression, or close to it, is used in the American Standard Version, New American Standard Version and RSV.

    It is not unique to the NIV.

    All too often, people attribute translation quirks to the NIV, without first checking if they are also used in other versions.


  2. Peter Kirk says:

    David Ker, welcome back to BBB! Like the other David, I would also point to ASV and RSV, which have “countenance fell”. In fact I have traced this wording back further, to the English Revised Version. NIV simply replaced the obsolescent “countenance” with the modern “face”, and it could do so because “face fell” was an established, if not very common, idiom. So the mystery is why the usually hyper-literal ERV chose this expression.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Which NASB, David? The version at Bible Gateway has “he was saddened”. And which came first, the NASB rendering or the NIV one? But it doesn’t really matter as I guess they would have made the same change from RSV independently.

  4. David McKay says:

    NASB, 95 update reads “But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving”

    But in the 1977 version, it reads “But at these words, his face fell, and he went away grieved.”

    There’s very little difference between NASB 77 and 95, I am led to beleive, except for changing thees and thous to “you”.

  5. John Hobbins says:

    I don’t know why ERV, ASV, NASB 1973, and NIV went with “his face fell” or “his countenance fell.” But it has an advantage no one has yet noted: it creates concordance between two superficially dissimilar expressions, “his face fell” in Gen 4:5-6 and “became gloomy” in Mark 10:22, expressions that are in fact quite similar in terms of core semantic meaning.

    The advantage over the standard image in English, “crestfallen,” is that “crestfallen” is no longer a live metaphor and thus has lost its plasticity.

    A translation that had “his face fell” / “has fallen” in Gen 4:5-6 (so ESV) and “his face fell” in Mark 10:22 (so NIV) would rock my face off.

  6. David Ker says:

    I also like the idea of creating concordance with the passage in Genesis: Two young men confronted by the master and told their gift isn’t good enough. That’ll preach.

    We’ve traced the origin on NIV’s rendering but I still wonder about the meaning of the Greek word here. The Matthew and Titus appearances seem to refer to stronger emotions than “sad.” What if instead of “he went away sad” we translated it “he went away furious” or “he left in a rage”?

  7. Rich Rhodes says:


    The word στυγνός isn’t, in fact, a rare word in Greek at all. It’s well attested back through the classical era. I think the rarity in Scripture has to do with the rarity of interest by the Biblical authors in talking about the range of sad emotions.

    στυγνός seems to mean something like the English word “gloomy”. It can also mean “hateful”, but my guess is that is a metaphor off of the idea that the “hateful” entity can cause gloom. Nuances of emotions are hard, hard, hard to pin down. Usually you have to line them up with native speakers and ask questions like which is the more profound sadness. And is there any special thing that causes this sadness. Unfortunately, there aren’t people we can ask those questions of. Shooting from the hip, I’ll guess that this is more like depression than run of the mill sadness. A quick read of various passages (both NT LXX and non-Biblical) makes it look like σκυθρωπός is the less sad one.

    So maybe a better gloss is “He got depressed, and went away hurt, because …” (I haven’t worked enough on the “grief” words either, and they play a role here, too.)

  8. David Ker says:

    Thanks, Rich. The second “sad” word, LUPEO, in Mark 10:22 occurs in the parallel passages at Matthew 19:22 and Luke 18:23. But this STUGNAZO phrase is unique to Mark.

    In the discourse, this word is new information, unexpected and therefore highly salient. In terms of natural information flow you would expect this order:

    1. Come and follow me.
    2 Then he stood up and followed him (as in Mark 2:14)

    But instead we have a big interruption:

    1. Come and follow me.
    2. Then stricken by his words,
    3. he went away sad
    4. for he had many possessions.

    So this is tightly structured, dramatic narrative.

    Mark 10:21 also adds a detail that the other Gospels lack: “he loved him”

  9. Rich Rhodes says:

    LUPEO is one of the ‘grief’ words I was leaving out. To the extent we can trust the lexicons, the ‘grief’ words include an aspect of pain/hurt that the ‘sad’ words lack. I’ll have to dig into this a little more.

  10. James says:

    Would ‘downcast’ adequately convey both the atmospheric sense (‘overcast’) and the sense of sadness (‘face fell’) as in lowering skies bringing weather which turns smiles into frowns?

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Would ‘downcast’ adequately convey both the atmospheric sense (‘overcast’) and the sense of sadness (‘face fell’) as in lowering skies bringing weather which turns smiles into frowns?

    Do we know if the biblical language speakers had this connection between a “lowering” sky and frowns? I would suggest that the metaphor of the sky “lowering” comes from English not the biblical languages.

  12. James says:

    Wayne, just so I understand the argument, isn’t that precisely the connection NIV makes to bridge the two senses of ‘otuyvoc’ (atmospheric gloom and sadness)? I gather you’re saying one of NIV’s two senses is metaphorical and inappropriate for a literal translation?

    If by “know” you are asking whether I can provide attestations for both senses of ‘otuyvoc’ in Greek, I cannot as I am unfamiliar with the language. But the Ancients had eyes to see cloudbanks descending and pouring forth rain, and it is not hard to imagine in certain circumstances they were saddened by this weather.

    I think ‘face fell’ quite literally describes what happens to one’s facial features when one is sad. One takes on a grim aspect, down-turned lips, eyes hooded, head bowed. ‘Face fell’ is not merely a decline in spirits, it literally describes a physical transformation. By ‘downcast’ I was trying to
    relate the literal descent of the heavens with this literal turning down of one’s facial features, perhaps providing a less metaphorical bridge connecting the verses from Mark and Matthew above.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    James, your suggestions make sense to me. I just don’t know if there was a metaphorical connection between lowering of clouds and lowering (falling) of ones face in Greek. Yes, as David Ker blogged, the same Greek word is used of an overcast sky and an overcast face, so that would be a metaphorical connection. But I don’t get a metaphorical connection yet between the English metaphor of “face fell” and Greek for an overcast sky. In other words, I am not aware that we can speak of the sky falling in Greek when it is overcast weather. But I do like your feel for the metaphorical language going on both in the Greek and the English translation of it. Thanks for arousing (!) my interest.

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