What in the Word?! Getting a handle on ‘handsome’
Handsome: it can mean ‘good-looking’, as we see in those yearly lists where George Clooney and Brad Pitt always seem to be vying for the top spot. It can also mean ‘substantial’, typically said of money or margins – though sometimes of cats, like Mr Handsome, a 31-pound (14-kg) stray cat recently adopted in North Carolina. But what is that hand doing in the word handsome, anyways?
First, welcome to ‘What in the Word?!’. It’s a new series on OxfordWords in which, every fortnight or so, we will uncover the surprising histories of everyday words and taken-for-granted phrases in the English language – like handsome. What do hands have to with attractiveness or size?
All roads lead to Rome, as they say, but all etymological enquiries lead to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest evidence the OED finds for handsome comes in a 1440 English-Latin bilingual dictionary, Promptorium Parvulorum: ‘Handsum, or esy to hond werke, manualis’. For those of us who aren’t so familiar with late Middle English, this gloss is essentially defining handsome as ‘easy to control or handle’, such as an ax or stone, according to some references from around the same time. And for those of us who don’t read Latin, manualis, source of English’s manual, is the adjective form of manus, ‘hand’. Manus also shows up in manipulate, Latin’s way of saying ‘handle’.
We might think of handsome, then, as literally ‘given to the hands’. That -some, as I’ve previously explored on the blog, was once – forgive the jargon – a very productive adjectival suffix meaning ‘having or causing a particular quality’. It lingers on in words like awesome, bothersome, gruesome, quarrelsome, among others, including, of course, handsome. Other body parts got some -some, too. Eyesome, ‘pleasing to the eye’, was once a synonym of sorts for handsome, and toothsome, originally ‘pleasing to the taste’, went on to become a kind of sexed-up handsome.
Now, how do we go from ‘handleable’ to ‘striking’? In a word: comparison; ever the driver of semantic development. Something easy to control or handle is easy to use (‘convenient’) and appropriate for some effort (‘suitable’). The OED finds handsome in these senses of ‘fit’ in William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch: ‘Beware of allegoryes, for there is not a moare handsome or apte a thinge to begile withall then an allegorye’. A handsome allegory, for Tyndale, was quite the troublesome affair.
It’s nice when things work right, isn’t it? Their form, their shape, is just right, and that’s pleasing, that’s agreeable. That’s handsome: ‘well-proportioned’ and ‘elegant’, as the OED defines this sense of handsome emerging in the mid-1600s. If things can be handsome, so, too, can people. Edmund Spenser describes a stripling, or a young man, as ‘handsome’ in his 1590 Faerie Queene. Shakespeare must have read his Spenser, as not long after he has Richard III talk of a ‘handsome stripling’ in one of his rants.
And so we get handsome as ‘attractive’. The word continued to evolve, though, and pose its complexities. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, handsome characterized a woman as ‘imposing’ or ‘stately’, meant as a notch above ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ – words we generally don’t apply to men, for all the convention’s underlying machismo and misogyny. Perhaps we could simply use ‘good-looking’ to avoid all its modern gender pitfalls, but handsome, unlike the appearance-oriented ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’, still calls up the nobility and integrity, a ‘well put-togetherness’, of its past meanings.
Speaking of nobility and integrity, a handsome donation is a ‘generous’ one. The exact evolution of this sense of handsome is a bit tricky, but it does go back to the adjective’s youth. In the early 16th century, we see handsome describing ‘expected’ behavior; i.e., ‘appropriate’, enlarged to ‘courteous’ and ‘morally admirable’. Later that century, we also see handsome as ‘moderately large’, perhaps evoking those shades of ‘well-proportioned’ stirring around this time. This handsome, too, was enlarged – and literally so, pushed from ‘moderate’ to ‘considerable’, like a handsome penalty.
Handsome is as handsome does, so the proverb goes, or ‘one’s good deeds matter more than their good looks’. But as for the word handsome? What it means today has come a long way from what it originally did. Still, it’s handy enough.