The English word face is taken from the French and ultimately comes from the Latin facia, meaning originally appearance, visage, and a bit later the front part of the head. In English, this order is reversed with the later Latin meaning appearing first. From Saints’ Lives, a manuscript from c.1290, found in the Early South English Legendary (1887):
More blod thar nas in al is face.
(More blood there than in all his face.)
The sense of outward appearance, look, or semblance appears in English a bit later, even though this is the original sense of the Latin root. From Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules, c.1381:
And right as Aleyn, in the Pleynt of Kynde,
Devyseth Nature of aray and face,
in swich aray men myghte hire there fynde.
(As right as Alan, in the Complaint of Gender,
devised nature an order and face,
in such array might find her there.)
The use of face to mean reputation and honor in the phrases to save face and to lose face are calques of Chinese brought into the language by 19th century English expatriates. Tiu lien in Chinese means literally to lose face and metaphorically to be humiliated or have one’s reputation besmirched. From Robert Hart’s 1876 These From the Land of Sinim:
Arrangements by which China has lost face.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton