How Gender Bends Meaning

English does not have grammatical gender—nouns are not classified as “masculine” or “feminine” as they are in other European languages. But we do have words that denote gender, like man or girl. There is no grammatical agreement for gender for adjectives in English, but there is the weight of precedent. The frequency with which we encounter any given pairing influences the way we ourselves use a given adjective. Take our use of the adjective handsome, for instance.

We typically use handsome to refer to an attractive man and beautiful to refer to an attractive woman. But these uses aren’t governed by grammar, they are governed by convention. The fact is, handsome woman was formerly much more commonly used than it is today; a corpus of English text before 1700 shows that handsome woman was used ten times more frequently than beautiful man. A similar search for the same two-word pairs in a corpus of text published in the past twelve years shows a remarkable flip, with beautiful man occurring nearly 20 times more frequently than handsome woman.

Even though their current use is more or less parallel in meaning, handsome and beautiful have very different histories. These histories are observable in the spelling of these words: Beautiful means “full of beauty,” coming from the French word beauté. Handsome originally meant “well-suited to the hands” of a tool or weapon, then jumped from referring to the thing wielded to the person doing the wielding to mean “good with the hands” or “dexterous.” It then came to mean “clever” or “fitting.” This idea of appropriateness or suitability led handsome to mean “elegant, well-proportioned,” and finally to a rough synonym of beautiful.

This history of handsome shows that the word always had essentially pragmatic roots in English, rather than the purely esthetic meanings of beautiful through time. Maybe this deep background of the word’s use has contributed to the evolution of handsome as a near-synonym of beautiful, but one with different connotations.

Shakespeare used handsome of a woman, and its other uses in literature are many, from Jane Austen to Mark Twain. In the 20th century, we find a slight change in meaning: still used to connote attractiveness, yes, but of a homey, comfortable, and unromantic kind. In journalistic writing, we see handsome used to describe a woman in TIME magazine into the 1980s, most often as “handsome wife.”
So handsome is settling into an identity after more than 400 years of usage. It means something slightly different when used of a man or of a woman, showing that parallel adjectives are not perfectly logical or equal. As a term for a slightly older, slightly serious woman, it forms an interesting pair with the use of our term for a slightly younger, slightly unserious man: pretty boy.

Follow Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, on Twitter @PeterSokolowski.