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On the recommendation of some regulars here, I managed to watch the movie The Madness of King George over the weekend, and found it excellent. Anyway, one funny scene in the movie is when King George, who despite being contentedly married is quite flirtatious, remarks on the looks of one of the Queen Consort's ladies-in-waiting to the head of his attending guards:

That's Lady Penbrook. Handsome woman, what? Daughter of the Duke of Marlborough...husband's an utter rascal.

Is the usage of "handsome" here archaic, or just rarely used by those in the know? If the former, when did it become so?

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I have always tried to understand the use of the word handsome in letter to a lady friend, but refrained from doing so, because I didn't know whether the word would be a thoughtful gesture or insulting. I have heard from many that the use of beautiful for a guy, when said by a woman, was also considered less than being referred to as handsome, but this one handsome/beautiful woman said just that: I was beautiful. Guess the meanings of both could be used either way. Nonetheless, I was honored with such deliberate grace and tone that, maybe, I should return the obligation. –  user54464 Oct 19 '13 at 2:53
I don't know how much I can add to what's already been said, but I have a family portrait photo from the late 1940's in Germany of my wife as a little girl with her aunt and uncle with whom she was staying at that time. In the photo, her aunt (my wife's mother's sister in fact) is not what I would call pretty, but she is a pleasant-looking woman, quite attractive in a robust way, and I would call her handsome. My wife, on the other hand, later when she was the same age, was what I would call hot. :-) –  Cyberherbalist Dec 12 '13 at 0:06
This answer doesn't really add much, but I had to share this: !Michelle Yeoh, in the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Michelle Yeoh, in the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The epitome of handsome, in my opinion. I still get the shivers just looking at her. –  Pitarou Dec 12 '13 at 3:57

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Handsome and pretty are two different types of human attractiveness, with handsome being more rugged and angular, and pretty being softer and more delicate. We tend to associate handsome with masculine beauty and pretty with feminine beauty, but there are also pretty men and handsome women. As alluded to by Brian, the use of the term might not necessarily be viewed as a compliment, since it implies a gender-atypical look.

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Well, the use of handsome in that film may well be archaic or it may not. According to NOAD it currently means

handsome (of a woman) striking and imposing in good looks rather than conventionally pretty.

What I think it doesn't mean is hot in the sense we would use it today. The emphasis is on striking: she's not conventionally pretty, but neither is she ugly. She has striking features.

Here is someone I think would fit the bill rather, er, handsomely:

Sigourney Weaver

And here is someone who is more conventionally pretty:

Scarlett Johansson

But remember the worn adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? It's worn because it's true. There are certainly people who find Sigourney Weaver more attractive than Scarlett Johansson. And I can tell you who I would choose in a heartbeat if I were ever in a death match with an alien.

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Right, I have heard it being used in the manner you've talked about before, but I wasn't sure if there was a hidden subtext of irony there or not. A kind of delicate way to say "that woman looks like a man!" In this movie, Lady Penbroke really couldn't be described as such; even with the getup and everything, she looked "classically beautiful." First time I've fallen in love with a woman in a poofy wig. –  Uticensis Mar 20 '11 at 19:20
@Billare: I think irony is in the eye of the beholder as well. Certainly you could use handsome to mean "not pretty"; but I think if people were looking for ways to say "not pretty" they'd go first to "plain" or some other word devoid of positive connotations. Handsome is, on the face of it, a compliment. It may not feel like enough of a compliment for a lot of women, but it's still positive. –  Robusto Mar 20 '11 at 19:28
Couldn't you have found a better photo of Sigourney Weaver? (I agree that she's a most handsome woman.) –  Pitarou Dec 12 '13 at 3:48
Heartily agree with @Pitarou. Not a flattering photo of the actress, and the Scarlett one is really photoshopped, she looks too perfect! Me catty? scratch hiss miaow –  Mari-Lou A Dec 12 '13 at 7:10
@Pitarou Ack! I've just visited the site. How can anyone photoshop (enhance) an infant! And the middle-aged man looked so much nicer in the before pic than in the one after. Au naturel for me. –  Mari-Lou A Dec 19 '13 at 0:23

I was under the impression that "handsome" was reserved for older (~50+ yo) women. Perhaps used when beauty had faded but the women retained a certain je ne sais quoi. I thinking here of Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver or Helen Mirren.

That being said, I have not heard the term used for a while.

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I agree here that 'handsome' would most likely not be used for a younger woman, no matter what her looks. –  Mitch Mar 20 '11 at 22:22
Perhaps this is a stretch but: I think the term was the polite was of saying an elegant to beautiful woman a little past her prime (post-menapausal?). These days, it would come off as both sexist and ageist with implications that a non-breeding female is not sexually desirable. "50 is the new 40", as claims the headlines. –  dave Mar 20 '11 at 23:29

I don't know about other parts of the US, but in the South it is very common to refer to a lady as handsome. In general it is a term used by older folks. A woman who is handsome has good looks that keep and she may have a certain chiseled quality or ruggedness that is noticed more on men, but is distinctly feminine on her. This is someone who ages well. My grandmother would always point to women 'looking handsome' at church.

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This is a condensed version of a multitude of posted answers on The Net(that I agree with): "By a handsome woman, we understand one that is graceful, well-shaped, with a regular disposition of features. Usually applied to a woman who is very well-groomed with the kind of refined beauty and attractiveness that requires poise, dignity, and strength of mind and character.

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