Q: I was wondering if you have any idea how the word “homely” came to mean ugly in the US and homey in the UK? I have not been able to track down this etymology.
A: As far as I can tell, the word “homely” means the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, and it has for hundreds of years. Although “homely” can mean plain or unattractive, I think “ugly” is too strong a word to use here.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define it as not attractive, lacking elegance, simple, unpretentious, or homelike. No mention of ugly!
When the adjective “homely” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “of or belonging to the home or household,” but this meaning is now obscure.
At around the same time “homely” came to mean simple, plain, or ordinary, which is understandable, since what’s most familiar to us can seem commonplace or humdrum.
The earliest citation in the OED for this sense, which has lasted into our time, is from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386): “Thanne hadde I with yow hoomly suffisaunce.”
This sense of the word is defined in the OED as “unsophisticated, simple; plain, unadorned, not fine; everyday, commonplace; unpolished, rough, rude” as well as that which “belongs to home or is produced or practised at home (esp. a humble home).”
The dictionary adds that this meaning of the word is “sometimes approbative, as connoting the absence of artificial embellishment; but often apologetic, depreciative, or even as a euphemism for wanting refinement, polish, or grace.”
”Homely” has been used in this sense to refer not only to things but also (since the 16th century) to people.
In reference to people, the OED says, the principal meaning that has survived is “of commonplace appearance or features; not beautiful, ‘plain,’ uncomely. “
As far as we know, Shakespeare was the first to use the word to mean lacking in personal beauty. Here’s the citation, from The Comedy of Errors (1590): “Hath homelie age th’alluring beauty tooke / From my poore cheeke?”
Probably because “homely” lost its cozy and homelike connotations, another word sprang up to replace it: “homey,” which was born in the mid-19th century.
The OED defines “homey” as “resembling or suggestive of home; home-like; having the feeling of home; homish.” The first citation is from the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley’s Letters and Memories of His Life (1856): “I like to … feel ‘homey’ wherever I be.”