Initially I started looking for the difference between winching and flinching and came to no real answer, as some sites defined the terms as synonymous with shirking away, then other searches resulted in wincing being described solely as a facial expression - followed by others saying this is totally false and that that's a grimace, without offering any real clarification.

From what I could piece together I came to the conclusion that: a) flinching is more subtle and doesn't necessarily have any facial expression b) wincing is similar, although accompanied by a visibly perturbed facial expression c) a grimace is only a facial shift, but one that's worse than a wince.

I'm not really sure if any of this is correct, however.

Also, I can't seem to find an exact explanation of how grimacing and wincing differ, or the exact situation one might be applied to (as some dictionaries said grimacing can be a sign of disapproval - which I don't see, but perhaps I'm exaggerating the expression in my mind). I always imagined grimacing as being a bit worse than wincing, perhaps an opening of the mouth up to the gums, while wincing would only be a few creases in the nose, or something - but again, if you Google the expression you'll get a variety of very pictures for both words, or worse, the same ones.

The weird thing is I can even think of books when these words were used interchangeably, which only adds to my confusion as a non-native speaker.

So to sum up, I really have two questions:

  1. What are the exact differences between the three terms, and in what situations are they best applicable?
  2. What's the difference between flinching and wincing as far as facial shifts go (assuming there are any)?
  • 3
    Both "flinch" and "wince" mean to draw back in fear or distaste. "Flinch" implies a failure either to endure pain or to face something dangerous or frightening with resolution (faced her accusers without flinching). "Wince" suggests a slight involuntary physical reaction, such as a start or a recoiling (wincing in pain). "Grimace" is essentially a facial expression, not a body movement, that is made in disgust, disapproval, or pain. For example, if you burn yourself on a hot stove, you may simultaneously flinch or wince (i.e., pull back your hand) and grimace (i.e., contort your face).
    – user66974
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:21
  • 1
    My take: Imagine you're donating blood, but you're not exactly a fan of needles. You flinch when the needle first touches you. You wince as phlebotomist inserts the needle, since it hurts a little bit. You grimace as the needle is about to be removed, but that's more from expecting it to hurt than from it actually hurting.
    – Flambino
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:56
  • I was surprised when I saw that an online dictionary gave these all as such close synonyms of each other. For me, 'grimace' is just a kind of negative facial expression, 'wince' is a facial expression in reaction to pain (mostly squinting the eyes quickly to hold back tears), and 'flinch' is a quick reflex of any body part away from expected pain (and is used metaphorically for any quickly giving up).
    – Mitch
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 12:34
  • Having shot a heavy rifle recently I like to think I'm able to separate my winces from my flinches. The recoil made me wince and rub my shoulder between shots, but hopefully the expectation of the pain didn't make me flinch as I pulled the trigger. I'm kind of surprised to see these as nearly synonymous since I've always thought of them distinctly, wince and grimace being similar. I think the fact that both grimace and wince could be slow separates them from flinch in my mind; flinch being necessarily quick.
    – Misneac
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 18:02

5 Answers 5


I would be sceptical of any site that defines anything as synonymous with "shirking away", since that phrase makes no sense in English. "Shirking" means avoiding a duty, and is unconnected with facial expressions.

"Grimacing" is all about facial expression, basically on the spectrum between disapproval/dislike/disgust/revulsion.

The thing shared by wincing and flinching is that they are basically pain responses. Almost the same but not quite. One nuance is that wincing is more about actual pain received (pain here subsumes the mental sort, people even wince at bad puns), whereas flinching is about avoidance of anticipated pain. In some contexts it is considered cowardly, so that "unflinching" becomes a word for courage and determination, sometimes ruthlessness, whereas if there is such a thing as "unwincing", it's less common and a lot less likely to be heard in e.g. patriotic or revolutionary rhodomontade.

You ever had someone touch your eyeball? You can let them do it without flinching? It's not easy.

There is no obligation to have any facial expression when flinching. The body part under threat is withdrawn, that's all. Put your hand on a hot-plate, and you'll surely flinch, you may wince as well if it burns you. You don't have to grimace.

(I see this overlaps on Josh, who wasn't there when I started to compose)

  • And when talking about grimacing, just how animated is the face supposed to be? or do we go more by context? Is there any implied severity? I somehow can't imagine revulsion and disapproval being similar in terms of how exaggerated the facial response might be.
    – Atri
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:54
  • As I see it the difference between wincing and grimacing is that one is a natural reflex, the other is a deliberate caricature of that reflex. Both could be subtle or dramatic, the difference is one is a natural reaction, the other is making a point. Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:28
  • I'm fairly certain that "shirking" is a typo, and "shrinking" was intended. Commented May 8, 2015 at 18:23

Since you've looked through various source material, I'll avoid throwing dictionary terms at you and state this as I see it, which may not be how others see it. But I will involve the supposed etymology of the words.

  1. Flinch - If I act like I'm going to punch you and you flinch, that means you moved your body in a twitch-like manner, in this instance away from me. The same applies if someone jumps from behind a bush and says "boo!" It is probably from the Old French flenchir - "to bend". Etymology of Flinch

  2. Wince - I usually think of this as a facial reaction as far as modern usage. In my thinking it involves squinting or averting the eyes while making a grimace, and is often an involuntary reaction to something unfortunate that has happened to someone or something in front of you. Before the Anglo-French winchir (to recoil suddenly) it was probably from the Old French guenchir - "turn aside" - and may involve the body, hiding the face or turning the head, but again I would think that's secondary to the facial expression. Etymology of Wince

  3. Grimace - supposedly traces back to Old Saxon grima - "mask" - and is purely a facial distortion - it is a caricature of disgust, it can be similar to a wince or even used purposefully to "make a face" at someone. Etymology of Grimace


My opinion-

A wince is a facial or bodily expression of pain, disgust, or regret.

A grimace is a facial expression that usually suggests disgust or pain, but sometimes comic exaggeration.

To flinch is to pull away suddenly or recoil when something frightens or hurts you.

  • he was so tough, I thought he'd never flinch.
  • 1
    Yes, but specifically to differentiate wince/flinch it's worth pointing out that flinch is strongly associated with backing down from an aggressive confrontation/challenge (usually, through fear). As opposed to wince/winch, which as you say is normally a more "visceral" reaction prompted by disgust/pain. Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:45
  • 2
    For example, you'd wince as a reflex when you suffer or when watching someone else suffer, you might extend your wince to a grimace if you wanted to deliberately express disapproval, and you might flinch as a reflex when you thought you were about to get hurt. For example, "I winced when the bully embarrassed John by pretending to punch him, making him flinch. John's other friend Jim grimaced - and the bully became angry, seeing this as a challenge" Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:22
  • @user568458 great example sentence. +1
    – dynamite
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 21:28

Josh61 already called this out in a comment, but since you ask:

What are the exact differences between the three terms, and in what situations are they best applicable?

I wanted to call more attention to another, metaphorical meaning of flinch.

1.1 (flinch from) Avoid doing or becoming involved in (something) through fear or anxiety:
I rarely flinch from a fight when I’m sure of myself

"flinch" Def. 1.1. Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford Dictionary of American English, n.d. Web. 8 May 2015.

In this sense, flinching is commonly used in the context of backing down, relenting, surrendering; to balk. It can be used when you are described a meta-confrontation, like a negotiation, a business or diplomatic deal of some kind. It can be used to describe behaviors anthropomorphized entities like countries, states or corporations.

Wincing is a poor synonym in this context, and grimace I have never heard used to describe anything other than a bodily reaction. You would have to construct a more complicated metaphor to describe an organizational wince or grimace.


Wincing is a facial or physical action of surprise as a result of uncomfortability spontaneous, flinching is a reaction less spontaneous but a reaction to surprise, shirking is a response to a specific task that someone is cognitive such as cleanliness, job task, homework, anything to do with a task at work or home, something as simple as but not limited to taking out the trash. In the military shirking you're duty can be punishable as an offense as with a fine, and jail ie, brig or stockade sentence. Understand of the first two, both can be autonomously. Some response are suggestive of self preservation as in flightresponse, a good example, a person is on fire ,they run, rather than stop drop and roll.

  • Where did you get shirk(ing) from? It's not in the question. Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 5:24

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