Q: I hear the word “handsome” applied to men and women, but in somewhat different ways. A handsome man, according to Wiktionary, is attractive, dignified, and in good taste. A handsome woman, on the other hand, is striking, impressive, and elegant, though not typically beautiful. Why the difference?
A: Comeliness (now there’s a handsome old word!) is always an interesting subject.
The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—have unisex definitions of “handsome” in this sense: pleasing, dignified, beautiful.
The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mention sex either, defining a “handsome” physical appearance as beautiful, dignified, stately, fine.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) , edited by R. W. Burchfield, agrees that “handsome” can be “applied equally to men and women of striking appearance.”
But Burchfield adds that “now, when applied to women, tending to be used only of such as are middle-aged or elderly.”
As an example, he cites Sherman McCoy’s thoughts about his wife in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. (We’ve gone to the original to expand the quotation, which includes the ellipses.)
“Still a very good-looking woman, my wife … with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair … But she’s forty years old! … No getting around it … Today good-looking … Tomorrow they’ll be talking about what a handsome woman she is.”
We think that Burchfield (a male lexicographer) may have gone a bit far in emphasizing the age angle here, but we agree that the adjective does indeed seem to be applied somewhat differently to men and women in modern times.
To begin with, it seems to be used much more often to describe men than women. And though a handsome man and a handsome woman may both be hunks, the woman tends to be hunkier (in the sense of being especially imposing or impressive).
The adjective “handsome” has had many meanings since it entered English in the 15th century, but it’s not certain why some have tended to attach themselves to men and others to women.
When the word first showed up around 1440, according to the OED, it meant easy to handle or manipulate. The adjective was formed (with the addition of the suffix “-some”) from the noun “hand.”
The dictionary’s first citation is from the Promptorium Parvulorum, an early Latin-English dictionary: “Handsum, or esy to hond werke.”
Over the years, it has meant, among other things, handy or convenient (1530); apt or clever (1547); moderately large (1577); considerable, as in a sum of money (1577); proper, decent, seemly (1583); polite, gracious, generous (before 1625); and gallant or brave (1625).
The OED’s earliest citation for the word’s use in the sense you ask about (beautiful, dignified, stately, etc.) is from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): “A handsom stripling.”
It’s been used for both men and women since then.
In Shakespeare’s Othello (1616), Emilia describes Ludovico as a “very handsome man,” while Lady Mary Wortley Montagu writes in a 1718 letter of a woman who “appear’d to me handsomer than before.”
As we said above, the adjective “handsome” is derived from the noun “hand,” a word that appears in various forms in Old English and other Germanic languages.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “hand” has “no relatives outside Germanic, and no one is too sure where it comes from.”
Ayto speculates that it might be related to early Germanic words for seizing, pursuing, and hunting, “and that its underlying meaning is ‘body part used for seizing.’ ”
By the way, the OED also has entries for “handsome” as an obsolete verb (meaning to make handsome) and as a rare old adverb (that is, in a handsome manner).
The dictionary says the adverbial usage survives in the proverb “handsome is as handsome does,” which uses “handsome” in two senses: you’re handsome (attractive) if you act handsomely (in a decent way).
The earliest known appearance of the proverb in writing, the OED says, is from a collection of fables, Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”
Since Ayres refers to it as “our English proverb,” the expression was obviously around long before he wrote his book of fables. [Update: We discuss “handsome is as handsome does” in 2021 and cite earlier examples.]
But perhaps an even earlier version of the proverb (minus the word “handsome”) may be seen in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the old hag lectures the Knight on gentility: “To do the gentil dedes that he kan; taak hym for the grettest gentil man.” (In Middle English, gentil means noble, refined, or excellent.)