The competitive making of grotesque faces, usually with the face framed by a horse-collar. It was previously popular at many fairs and other gatherings, but gurning's only surviving traditional venue appears to be at *Egremont Crab-Apple Fair, where they claim to have the World Champion Gurning Competition. Wright's English Dialect Dictionary gives several, clearly related, meanings for the word, such as 'to show or gnash the teeth in rage or scorn; to snarl as a dog; to look savage, distort the countenance; to speak in a snarling, surly tone; to show the teeth in laughing; to grin; to speak with a grimace or chuckle'. The earliest reference cited is from 1685, and nearly all the other pre-1800 quotations are Scottish rather than English. Pulling faces has long appealed to English humour, as can easily be seen on gargoyles, misericords, and other minor items of comic carving in medieval churches.
N&Q.176 (1939), 226, 267, 303, 413.