Posted in Chatty

Word Origins: from fact to compliment with “handsome”

Hey y’all! As I was feeling appreciative of my lovely boyfriend, I was thinking to myself how handsome he is and then started getting distracted thinking about how weird a word that is to mean attractive. And it’s usually in a masculine way these days, but I’ve definitely read older books where it was for women and was mostly a compliment as far as I could tell. And yet the word itself by rights sounds more like an action or request to give an item to another person. So what happened here??

Origins of “handsome”

When did it first get used?

What does it mean?
modern day meaning of attractive, usually for men or strong featured women

originally, though… it meant easy to handle or readily at hand. So my instinct was right: it did have more to do with being given something or an object being held!

and then in 1580s it started to track with the meaning of an attractive or pleasing thing (or person)

and then in 1680s to extend the 1580s meaning to items to mean generous more broadly, as in “I’ll reward you handsomely”

And you know when it finally started to mean heavily that something was “agreeable to the eye” as they used to phrase it? Not until 1848!!

What did it come from?
This word took quite a journey, from originally just meaning “something easily available” to meaning “an attractive man.” I feel like there’s definitely a joke in there somewhere. xD

It feels somehow very fitting that it was Americans who turned the word handsome into a buzzword that the English were bemused by. Think of the slang that gets popular every couple of years and suddenly it’s all you hear. YOLO comes to mind…

Apparently we used it all the time. I’m going to use this quote from etymonline / OED because it’s just so perfect to illustrate the feeling of the change.

[Americans] use the word “handsome” much more extensively than we do: saying that Webster made a handsome speech in the Senate: that a lady talks handsomely, (eloquently:) that a book sells handsomely. A gentleman asked me on the Catskill Mountain, whether I thought the sun handsomer there than at New York.

Harriet Martineau, “Society in America,” 1837

There’s also a note that handsome does not necessarily mean beautiful. A handsome face is very symmetrical, or has definition in the lines, whereas a beautiful face could be none of that and still have so much of an essence or a uniqueness that makes it such.

Anyway, one last note that I found interesting is that handmaid was originally related in meaning to handsome. Remember how handsome originally meant easy to get or convenient? Well a hand maid was a servant who was always available. Simple, right?


Reader, traveler, photographer, and always looking to learn!

2 thoughts on “Word Origins: from fact to compliment with “handsome”

  1. “This word took quite a journey, from originally just meaning “something easily available” to meaning “an attractive man.” I feel like there’s definitely a joke in there somewhere. xD” >> haha, I love it! This is really interesting. What a journey this word took! Great post, Jennifer 🙂


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