I am reading a text and there is a phrase which I don't know the meaning of:

His face was as sharp as a pen.

What does it mean?

  • 1
    Try Googling "as sharp as a pen". Quill pens were very pointed in Shakespeare's day. Mostly, this seems to be a simile applied to noses, but chins can be quite pointed too. – Edwin Ashworth May 29 '15 at 8:48
  • There is the expression sharp-faced: having very clearly defined facial features collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/sharp-faced. As sharp as a pen is an unusual metaphor referring to a face...probably more context is needed. – user66974 May 29 '15 at 8:51

The phrase appears to be a reference to the controversial phrase from Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 2 Scene 3)

for his nose was sharp as a pen, and a'babbled of green fields


for his nose was sharp as a pen, and a table of green fields

google books


Reading the sources I quoted, one learns that this phrase baffled editors. Some thought it a mistake and corrected it. Some tried to figure out the real meaning behind it.

From the google book "Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare's Plays"

...writing tables were no doubt at that period often covered with green cloth; and it is to the sharpness of a pen, in relief of a table so covered, that Mrs. Quickly likens the dying wit of the philosopher...

Of course, all of this borders on speculation, but I'd say that your writer was trying to describe a similar situation.

Sparknotes translates this as gaunt.

So you could consider this to mean a gaunt face.

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sharp three first meanings :

  • Able to cut easily.

  • (colloquial) Intelligent.

  • Terminating in a point or edge; not obtuse or rounded.

Pens were sharpened with knife to be able to keep writing with them. So the face weren't round as their are now but with angles.

As @Josh61 suggests, sharp-faced is a face with angles, not round.

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Based on this definition from Collins Dictionary, I imagine the author is alluding to the person having a very defined face.

sharp-faced (also sharp-featured) adjective

having very clearly defined facial features

Source: Collins Dictionary

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