Woolfer Words: “Conceal”

It was my 43rd birthday, and I had woken up feeling headachy (second glass of wine the night before) and unmoored (second-to-last day at my career job, which I had quit the week before). I generally ignore birthdays, but this one felt momentous: the cresting wave of a sea change. As I gulped down a multivitamin with my morning coffee, I thought about what I could do to mark the moment—that was the Old, Careworn Me, but this is the New, Sexy, Don’t-Give-A-Shit Me. It needed to be something simple but foundational. It hit me: I was going to finally learn how to put on under-eye concealer.

I rarely wear makeup for pragmatic and bland reasons. I work from home; when I worked in an office, I was squirrelled away and no one ever saw me; I never had the time to slap it on in the morning; if I was going to spend money on a leisure item, it was going to be scotch. Whenever I had to wear makeup, I ended up looking like a six-year-old who fell face-first into her mother’s Avon drawer. YouTube and two teenage daughters had helped me develop some basic skills, but I had never gotten the hang of under-eye concealer. On my lunch break, I headed to the mall. The sixteen-year-old girl at the makeup store who had the misfortune to help me had skin like expensive silk and no under-eye baggage.


“Concealer” is derived from the verb “conceal,” which was first used in English print in the 1300s. English borrowed the verb from the medieval French, and its early written uses have a distinctly Continental flavor to them. Swords and crimes get hidden; sorrows and lovers are concealed.

By the Victorian era, “conceal” was weirdly gendered. It was seen as genteel and softer: a demurring word. Women concealed their emotions while men hid theirs. If a truth or fact was concealed and not hidden, a lady was usually involved (and often as the one to be protected from the harsh realities of the truth). But “hide” was used more often for the outward evidence of a woman’s weakness: women were eternally hiding their faces (usually in a man’s shoulder) or hiding their tears.

One exception to the rule: a woman’s age is always, always concealed.


The trick, my makeup artist explained as she dolloped concealer on my face, was to draw a triangle under the eyes and then to just blend it in gently. She took something out of her drawer that looked like a Nerf buttplug but which I recognized from my daughter’s makeup arsenal as a blending sponge, and began tapping gently under my eye.

“You can also use a brush to blend it in, if you want,” she said.

“Which brush?”

“An eyeshadow brush will work.”

“Look at me,” I snapped, gesturing at my naked face.

“Do I look like I know what an eyeshadow brush is?” She stopped tapping, reached into her drawer, and showed me the eyeshadow brush.


“Conceal” pairs with “reveal”: they both showed up in print around the same time, and they are etymological siblings, born from the same root word. You can’t have one without the other.

Part of “conceal’s” allure is that it covers up what would otherwise be revealed: secrets, bodies, desires. It signals intent: concealment isn’t accidental. You make a cold analysis and decide what or who should be tucked out of sight.

“Conceal” is no longer gendered the way it was in the 19th century, and we currently prefer to use the plainspoken “hide” in the majority of cases. The one place where “conceal” outstrips “hide” is when we use it with the word “identity.” Look through the collected written uses for “conceal one’s identity” and you find fear at its core: fear of being outed as gay; fear of being fired for reporting wrongdoing; fear of being targeted; fear of being caught.

“Conceal” ultimately comes from the Latin verb celare, which means “to hide.” Celare is also related to the word that gave us “hell.”


My makeup savior explains, as we scan the rack of concealers, that under-eye concealer should be one shade lighter than your natural skin tone. I’m flabbergasted—shouldn’t it match my skin tone?—but she assures me she’s right. The beauty mags and blogs agree with her, and the ones that discuss the mechanics of under-eye concealer say that a lighter tone helps color-color correct for dark circles and brightens the area under the eyes. Everything in moderation, though. Too much concealer, applied poorly, or a concealer that’s a shade too light, and suddenly you look like Donald Trump fresh from his begoggled spray tan. It’s fitting that something called “concealer” only works by drawing just the right amount of attention to the area, which is the amount of attention that we have all silently agreed is no attention at all.

It takes practice to put on concealer (I use this one), and while I’m annoyed at my failures, I get better at it, until one day, it clicks. It happens on a cross-country trip, where I arrived at my destination a day late and on two hours of sleep because of weather delays. I’ve been put up in a hotel far above my station, the sort of place where you get turn-down service and artisan chocolates on the pillow. I look and feel like a badly worn Motel 6 bedspread.

I get ready for my book reading, which means putting on my face. When I finish, I step back and look in the mirror, and I’m shocked at what I see: me, only more so. I examine my eyes: the bags look smaller, the circles dimmer, and there’s nothing caked in my crow’s feet. I don’t look tired, or dirty, or worried about unemployment or my daughter’s college tuition. I look confident, don’t-give-a-shit. I send a selfie to my teenager, who texts back, “YOU look SO GOOD.” I have successfully concealed, and in the process, also revealed.

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Kory Stamper

Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, ​has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.

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