In response to the comments on this entry, I thought it would be interesting to look at the dictionary definitions of “ugly,” “pretty”, and “beautiful.” I find that one of the biggest problems for me in talking about these issues is the language we’re stuck with. All of the words have so much complicated history and baggage.
Here are some Merriam Webster definitions.
Main Entry: ug-·ly
Etymology: Middle English, from Old Norse uggligr, from uggr fear; akin to Old Norse ugga to fear
1 : FRIGHTFUL, DIRE
2 a : offensive to the sight : HIDEOUS b : offensive or unpleasant to any sense
3 : morally offensive or objectionable “corruption–the ugliest stain of all”
4 a : likely to cause inconvenience or discomfort “the ugly truth” b : SURLY, QUARRELSOME “an ugly disposition” “the crowd got ugly”
Main Entry: pret-·ty
Etymology: Middle English praty, prety, from Old English pre¦ttig tricky, from pre¦tt trick; akin to Old Norse prettr trick
1 a : ARTFUL, CLEVER b : PAT, APT
2 a : pleasing by delicacy or grace b : having conventionally accepted elements of beauty c : appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity “pretty words that make no sense — Elizabeth B. Browning”
3 a : MISERABLE, TERRIBLE “a pretty mess you’ve gotten us into” chiefly Scottish : STOUT
4 : moderately large : CONSIDERABLE “a very pretty profit” “cost a pretty penny”
synonym see BEAUTIFUL
Main Entry: beau-·ti-·ful
Etymology: Middle English beaute, from Old French biaute, from bel, biau
beautiful, from Latin bellus pretty; akin to Latin bonus good — more at
1 : having qualities of beauty : exciting aesthetic pleasure
2 : generally pleasing : EXCELLENT
synonyms BEAUTIFUL, LOVELY, HANDSOME, PRETTY, COMELY, FAIR mean exciting sensuous or aesthetic pleasure. BEAUTIFUL applies to whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses “beautiful mountain scenery”. LOVELY is close to BEAUTIFUL but applies to a narrower range of emotional excitation in suggesting the graceful, delicate, or exquisite “a lovely melody”. HANDSOME suggests aesthetic pleasure due to proportion, symmetry, or elegance “a handsome Georgian mansion”. PRETTY often applies to superficial or insubstantial attractiveness “a painter of conventionally pretty scenes”. COMELY is like HANDSOME in suggesting what is coolly approved rather than emotionally responded to “the comely grace of a dancer”. FAIR suggests beauty because of purity, flawlessness, or freshness “fair of face”.
Random thoughts on the definitions.
I think it’s really interesting that ugly comes from ugga “to fear”. It’s the kind of word that has always been used to describe difficult and inappropriate women – such as witches. But of course it’s also a word used to hit women and folks on the margins from childhood like a club. And the word has so many meanings that are not about looks. I’d like to ask Dorothea and Stef more specifically what ugly means for them. When I’m looking through a lens, it’s not a concept that comes up, but their definitions could change that.
“Having conventionally accepted elements of beauty : appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force,” works well for me as a definition of “pretty” for me. I usually think of “pretty” as conventionally attractive and lacking in power. Sometimes when I photograph women in the nude they will assume the poses of magazine nudes, poses that don’t reflect who they really are. I just wait until they become more relaxed.
And pretty comes from tricky.
“Whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses” is a very incomplete definition of “beautiful,” but at least it has breadth. My personal meaning for beauty is in my photographs In spite of all the writing I do here I’m not really that deeply verbal. That’s why I take pictures.
I am curious as to how these definitions strike people.