Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?
A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.
Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”
And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”
Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.
In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:
“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).
“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).
So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.
This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”
In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:
“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”
The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.
The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used. (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)
By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.
Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.
In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:
“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).
“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).
Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).
Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.