There is often a fine line between comedy and tragedy, between laughing and crying, and nowhere is that line finer than in the traditional British ‘sport’ of gurning, in which contestants compete to pull the most tragically ugly and hilariously funny faces.
World Gurning Championships
Though gurning competitions are held in many villages throughout the country, the main event is the World Gurning Championships, held at the Egremont Crab Apple Fair in Cumbria, north-west England. Egremont is a small town with a population of less than 8,000 people. The fair was first established there in the year 1267 by Royal Charter of King Henry III, after the local Lord of the Manor wheeled a cart of crab apples through the village as a gift to the poor locals. Nice gesture, but these notoriously sour apples drove people to pull all manner of faces – some no doubt better than others – and the tradition of the gurning contest was born. The fact that it’s still going strong nearly 750 years later is proof that pulling faces is never going to stop being funny.
The Gurning Competition Rules
Practically speaking, the competition is pretty simple: contestants get on stage one after another, pull their best face at the crowd, and whoever gets the most applause wins. At some point in history someone obviously realised that pulling a face is funnier when you do it with a horse’s collar – or ‘braffin’ – around your neck, so “gurnin’ through a braffin” is now standard procedure.
If you think that anyone with a face and no sense of shame could be a champion gurner, you’re sorely wrong. The face-pulling prowess of Britain’s top gurners is so undisputed that their winning streaks can last for many years. Anne Woods was world champion of women’s gurning for an incredible 28 years, while current male champion Tommy Mattinson has won the men’s title 15 times. Contestants have been known to have their teeth removed in order to maximise their ridiculousness.
The Origins of the word Gurning
But why is it called ‘gurning’? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word ‘gurn’ may be related to the Scottish word ‘grin’, while in Northern Ireland ‘gurning’ means ‘crying’. So not only does a good gurn-off unite onlookers in tears, laughter and celebration of ugliness, this shared heritage also unites various parts of the British Isles. No-one is innocent here.