I am from the UK, and have always read phrases like "anyone who does this thing will be frowned upon" as ominous understatements portending heavy administrative action against violators.

For example, I recently interpreted a mod saying:

Further attempts to [perform some action] will be frowned upon

...to be a threat in "mod voice" of potential mod action against anyone who dared perform the described action.

However, a Canadian argued that they had not interpreted it in this way at all.

Is this a regional variation?

If so, might it be an intensifier/mitigator difference, like "quite" is usually an intensifier in the UK intensifier, but a mitigator in the US? Someone "quite tired" in the UK is aching for sleep, but in the US would likely just welcome a sit down.

That is, if someone in power says this phrase in, say, Canada, is the implication ever that you will "[merely] be frowned upon [and nothing more]", rather than "be frowned upon [and subject to the speaker's wrath]"?

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    As an aside, the term "frown" itself seems subject to regional variation. Living in Texas I was surprised to find the word mostly used to describe a down-bowed mouth, rather than a furrowed brow. People do seem to look at people's mouths, more than their eyes, to determine emotion here, but I don't know if that's behavior following language, or vice versa. Sep 29 '15 at 2:33
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    For me, in the Midwest, it simply means that it is discouraged. It doesn't indicate any real consequence. Since it doesn't indicate much consequence I sometimes use it as an ironic understatement for things that DO have a serious consequence. If that makes any sense.
    – TomMcW
    Sep 29 '15 at 3:11
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    It does indeed make sense, and that "ironically understated threat" sense is the majority one in the UK, at least when said by a person in power, like an admin, mod or boss. People with no power cannot make threats, after all! Sep 30 '15 at 7:04
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    Question is... do you MORE OFTEN use it non-ironically? Sep 30 '15 at 7:05
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    I, myself use it more often in the ironic sense, but I'm a somewhat sarcastic person. I've heard it used in both ways about equally. The ironic sense, though, is slowly making the original sense obsolete. At this point, depending on circumstance and inflection one could still tell which was meant. But eventually the original intent will be supplanted by the sarcastic one. I think that's pretty much what happens when a common phrase is used sarcastically, the original intent falls out of use.
    – TomMcW
    Sep 30 '15 at 7:37

First, in spite of your question title, it is generally not the person who is frowned upon here. It is the action performed that is frowned upon. (The person might receive a frown, but the expression has to do with the action.)

The expression is intentionally vague. It can suggest anything from mild disapproval to the possibility of serious punishment.

Generally, it is fairly mild, but it can be a subtle threat of unspecified consequences.

My experience with this is mainly AmEn, from pretty much anywhere in the US - and, say, Ontario, Canada.

(FWIW, I also would not say that quite always mitigates and does not intensify, in the US. I'm quite tired typically means that my tiredness is more than average. Depending on the context, it could be the same as I'm very tired. A lot depends on whether quite is accented/emphasized. Perhaps what can be said is that in AmEn quite can sometimes lessen the intensity. Dunno whether the same can be said for BrEn.)

  • Could you edit your answer to describe from which region or regions you are writing? The question is not asking for the meaning: both meanings you describe are acknowledged in the question itself. The question is perhaps better phrased as *which meaning predominates in each English-speaking region?" - for example, I'd argue that the latter, "subtle threat" meaning significantly predominates in the UK. I'll also note a slight difference between "frown upon" and "frown on" - the haughtier "upon" amplifies the threat quite significantly. "subtle threat" meaning Sep 30 '15 at 6:54
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    Edited to indicate region.
    – Drew
    Sep 30 '15 at 15:01

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