Ugly, Pretty, Beautiful

Laurie says:

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
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
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.

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9 thoughts on “Ugly, Pretty, Beautiful

  1. Insofar as I want to “get to be ugly” (and I’m one of the people who thinks everyone is beautiful), I want it precisely because of its etymology via ugga “to fear”. I’m also interested in the “likely to cause inconvenience or discomfort” aspect. Sometimes I want people (usually people who are trying to shame me into behaving differently) to fear me and sometimes I want to be inconvenient or uncomfortable to them rather than doing what they want.

    Such ugliness is to me entirely compatible with what I think of as the deep kind of beauty, the kind that comes from experience and competence and struggling and such.

    Wanting to “get to be ugly” also ties in for me with strong dislike of my culture’s equation of health with youth and with moral purity. So wanting to “get to be ugly” also means to me that I get to be the age I have attained and I get to have the body I have, including the ways that it doesn’t work perfectly, and I get to decide how I inhabit / am / relate to my body rather than buying into the cultural view that I have to treat it as something to be punished and rewarded like a recalcitrant dog. It also means I don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of energy attiring myself in ways that look nice to others.

    I sometimes like to be pleasant, patient, kind, unscary, to do healthy things, and to dress well. I’d just like it to be more on my own terms. You know? (That also means nobody else is responsible for doing anything about my wanting to get to be ugly, and this isn’t a general call for reclaiming the word. The word isn’t really important, the attitude is.)

  2. I like the Browning definition for pretty quite a bit.

    All this reminds me–I recommend Scott Westerfeld’s _Uglies_. It’s a YA novel (first of a trilogy) about a future society where everyone gets plastic surgery at age 16 to make them beautiful. The book has a *lot* about people’s weirdness around appearance.

  3. Wow, cool. First thing I do when I want to understand more about a word is go and look up etymologies — the story of the word, so to speak.

    Random thinks bat ack you:

    Yeah, it’s interesting that “ugly” is from fear. Are we afraid of the ugly because it is fearsome in itself, or because we fear that we may be ugly? A belief that the inner self projects to the outer form? (Viz. the idea that you have at 20 the face you were born with but at 40 the face you made.) Ugliness tends to be associated with “witches,” yet when we look at it, the most fearful witches are the beautiful ones, no?

    There’s a kind of innate onomatopoeia here: children tend to say “ugh” about both the fearful and the ugly.

    “Pretty” — I find myself inclined to suspect that “praett,” trick, is also the source of “prat,” a fool or the buttocks (respectively in “you silly prat” and “he took a pratfall”).

    Prettiness — which is like beauty but shallower, more facile — is a trick? Certainly prettiness is easier to achieve by cosmetic (and suchlike) means. And certainly I (just me, anecdotal point of reference, possibly not significant) have always distrusted prettiness, esp as over against beauty.

    “Beauty” — okay, from frightfulness to trickiness to goodness? (And is “bellus” related to “bello,” war? Paging Helen of Troy? … but she really is a funny girl, that Belle!)

    Beauty, bon-té, bounty: excellence and plenty. Beauty lasts where prettiness does not; can even grow with age.

    Riffing mentally back to the comments on the other post: “everything/everyone is beautiful in its/his/her own way” — there is definitely a beauty to (at least to some kinds of) ugliness, no? (Is it permitted to cite Heinlein here? I me recall the bit in Stranger where VMS observes that old people are more beautiful than young people because they have their real faces, something like that — that isn’t literally what he says, he’s actually commenting on why he finds Jubal Harshaw beautiful.)

    Also: “pretty” seems (though it doesn’t say anything in any of the dictionaries I’ve glanced at) to me (at least in speaking of people; not relevant when talking of, say, a landscape … at least, not for most of us…) to have more to do with sexual attraction/ invitation/ come-on/ etc. than does “beautiful.” (Sorry, that sentence got really mangled with sidenotes; I’m thinking aloud here.)

    There’s the old smartassery about “beauty is only skin deep but ugly goes right to the bone.” No, I don’t think so; if one does, then both do.

  4. Dearie me, I hope not. Because I have no trouble with the “aesthetically pleasing” definition for beauty, prettiness, whatever word you care to use. I’m just not aesthetically pleasing.

    What’s more, I don’t want to feel that I need to be. Whether beauty by whoever’s definition is attainable or not for me, I don’t want to have to attain it. I want to be aesthetically displeasing — and have that be perfectly okay, because I exist on plenty more (and more important to me) planes than the aesthetic.

    “Everybody’s beautiful!” comes far too close to “Everybody MUST be beautiful!” for my taste. I’d rather see people learn to cope with some ugly.

  5. This reminds me of a literary gentleman in the 1800s who was a guest of novelist George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans, who, if you see any portraits of her, you will see, had a very large, prominent nose. (There were other reasons why not everyone went to see her–she was a social pariah in Victorian England for living “in sin” but it seemed that she was equally notorious for not being “pretty” due to the nose. The dinner guest said something along the lines of all–at first all he could look at was “it” but she had a lovely, melodious voice, and she was a brilliant conversationalist, and after a little while he forgot “it”. This is a kind of skill that a lot of us: fat, old, differently abled, or just plain unconventional-looking people cultivate–keep talking till you engage them as a human being.

  6. Sorry! Just one more thing about George Eliot. I misremembered quote. Here it is from wikipedia, Henry James was describing meeting her:

    “She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone qui n’en finissent pas… Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.”

    What leaps out at me from this description is how shallow it makes James sound. He’s still preoccupied with what the other guys will think.

  7. Lynn, that reminds of what my first boyfriend once said to me. He told me that, when he first met me, he thought I was the “homeliest” (a word which doesn’t seem to be used much now) girl he had ever seen, but that, because I was so sweet, smart, funny, warm & friendly, I “grew” on him & he came to like the way I looked. I have CP, walk with a noticeable limp, had a lot of problems with acne then, & also wore thick glasses (gone since my cataracts surgeries & lens implants). I was not certifiably fat then, as I am now, just plump & always, as now, well-proportioned & curvaceous. Growing up as a social pariah because of the CP & in the hell created by abusive alcoholic parents, I accepted his words as absolute truth back then. Strangely enough, more than a few people since have told me that I am pretty (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), & the man who loves me now is a tall, lean, well-built, classically handsome ex-jock who calls me beautiful. I do understand well what James meant, how it is possible, however we may look, to win people over, etc. I also agree with you that James sounds shallow, as shallow as many males I have known in my life, males who did not want to be connected with me or seen in public with me, even as they tried to seduce me in private.

    As I said in the other post, I have spent enough time in my life thinking of myself as ugly, so I intend to spend the rest of my life accepting & celebrating my beauty, & appreciating the beauty of others, even when that beauty is unconventional…perhaps especially when the beauty is unconventional.

  8. This is a really interesting discussion!

    Thanks Stef and Dorothea for the explanations.

    I’ll be out of the loop on the blog for the next few days. When I get back I want to think and talk abut this some more.

  9. Okay, David, I’ll call you a man! As such, you have valuable knowledge I could never know about how men talk among themselves in regards to which women they find attractive and why.

    The point where it seemed to me that James came across as shallow was when he said: “behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.” Not so much earlier when he described her unlovely features accurately. That last part seemed to me that he was inviting the reader to be amused that he found beauty in such an unlikely place. I believe he was writing the letter to another male–I would look it up, but if I go to look for it I may lose my message here!

    I don’t think at all that James was shallow to have found beauty in Eliot, and I do agree with you that he was being painfully honest, even as he made fun of himself to his buddy for finding her so compelling. Sort of Victorian salon locker room chatter.

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