I found an interesting phrase, “purse-lipped mother-in-law” in the following lines of the article titled “The newspaper that rules Britain,” which appeared in New Yorker magazine, April 2nd, 2012 issue.

The article deals with the way the Daily Mail treated the news of the defrocking from knighthood of former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin:

In the Mail’s cosmology, men are giants or pygmies, strong or weak. (Women are assessed by other metrics.) Such is the Mail’s censoriousness that British Esquire recently deemed it the nation’s “purse-lipped mother-in-law.” After the affair, Goodwin obtained from the High Court a gag order that forbade the British media from reporting it.

The phrase purse-lipped mother-in-law reminds me of a Japanese idiom, kojuto-no-yomeibiri – a universal habit of a mother-in-law fond of bullying her daughter-in-law (who married her son).

Does purse-lipped mother-in-law mean the same – a censorious woman who always chews out her daughter-in-law (or anyone around her)? Can I say "purse-lipped wife"? Is it a popular English phrase?

4 Answers 4


The odd thing is that pursed-lipped is used wrongly here. The point about pursed lips is that they are held very tightly shut in a deliberate attempt to prevent yourself expressing anything verbally. See for example this picture of Sarah Palin.

The Daily Mail, by contrast, expresses itself vocally on every subject both positively and negatively (though more commonly the latter) and often inconsistently: it can declare something a cause of cancer and then a few months later a cure for cancer; it can attack the government for cutting benefits to parents and pensioners while on a different page attack the government for encouraging welfare dependency and discouraging saving and work. It is rarely shows silent disapproval on any issue that it thinks its readers might care about.

  • 1
    Sarah Palin’s picture gives me a clear vision of purse-lipped woman at a glance. But if it means someone who shut her mouth tightly, by biting her lips as shown by the picture, it doesn’t apply to the Daily Mail as you say. You can’t be 'censorious' by pursing your mouth. Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 3:44
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    @Yoichi Oishi: There is a kind of person who wants to criticise but decides not to say anything, and then their purse-lipped expression amounts to disapproval. It occasionally happens with Queen Elizabeth II, who never expresses negative opinions in public.
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 11:19
  • I suspect the epithet coined by Esquire was catty, or sarcastic rather than "wrong".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 9:20

Because it is a metaphor, there is some leeway for interpretation. When I hear the phrase, purse-lipped, I envision someone whose lips are pursed in silent disapproval. I would find another metaphor for a verbally critical mother-in-law such as the unoriginal "acid-tongued," which may in fact be an idiom more than a metaphor.


Purse-lipped mother-in-law is not idiomatic inasmuch as it means just what it says, a mother-in-law with pursed lips. Purse-lipped to some extent is an idiom, in that it is figurative speech for a "prissy or mean" person. (For example, in the book Body Signs, J. Liebmann-Smith and J. Egan remark, "If you see someone with pursed lips, the word prissy or mean may be on the tip of your tongue. But pursed lips can signal a serious immunologic disorder called scleroderma, which ...") Also, mother-in-law is used figuratively in the article, standing for someone who nags, interferes, or is quarrelsome.

According to ngrams for purse - lipped,pursed lips,pursed - lipped, the term pursed lips occurs much more commonly than do purse-lipped or pursed-lipped.

Of course you can say "purse-lipped wife", but the phrase is not common, nor will it be popular with anyone if you say it of them.

  • For instance, can I say “Sorry Taro, my purse-lipped wife is watching the clock at home” to my friend jokingly when he insists me to have another drink after barhopping? Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 2:15
  • Pursed lips in my experience is an indication of disapproval which may or may not come from that person being a 'priss' or mean. Especially when coupled with 'mother-in-law' this is most likely about a mother who does not approve of her child's choice of spouse.
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 30, 2012 at 2:19

Does “purse-lipped mother-in-law” mean the same – censorious woman who always chews her daughter-in-law (or anyone around her) out?

Basically, yes. To be purse-lipped indicates utter disapproval or disgust. That entire phrase isn't popular, but as jwpat7 says, purse-lipped itself is somewhat popular.

Can I say "purse-lipped wife"?

You could, but I wouldn't recommend saying it to her face.

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