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Why we say the world is beautiful? Can't we say the world is handsome?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Sure, you can say the world is handsome. It's just that the word "beautiful" has worn a path in our language regarding the world.

Handsome can also mean imposing, or of great size, as in "a handsome prize" or "a handsome sum of money"; and you can use any human-descriptive adjective you like, really, if you are speaking figuratively and employing the pathetic fallacy.

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But generally no one uses handsome :( – Deviprasad Das May 23 '11 at 12:14
@Deiprasad Das: As I said, beautiful is more common. But you can use handsome if you like. There is nothing to prevent you, especially if you can pull it off in an interesting way. "The Earth is handsome the way grand buildings are: large, complicated, striking — but with all the subtleties working together to achieve a profound harmony." Or something like that. – Robusto May 23 '11 at 12:26

Because handsome and beautiful are subtly distinct aesthetic qualities. Handsomeness emphasises form and fitness for function, while beauty is more general.

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Sure, you can say that the world is handsome, but it sounds weird.

  • 'handsome' is generally used for a guy's looks. And that's about it (with some stretching of meaning: Can you call a woman 'handsome'? )

  • 'beautiful' is so general as to be applicable to any positive esthetic experience.

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Inanimate objects in our world are often given the feminine gender.

For example, ships are called 'she' i.e. She's a wonderful ship.

That is why it is only natural to use the adjective 'beautiful' on these inanimate objects, hence the description that the Earth is beautiful.

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What if one doesn't believe Earth to be inanimate? Anyway, just because there are conventional uses doesn't present other uses. – pazzo Jun 2 '15 at 9:12
"A handsome ship" would be a lot like a "handsome woman" - a phrase that is unusual but with distinct meaning to "beautiful woman". In contrast "handsome world" just doesn't work well. I think this is because the characteristics we associate with "handsome" can map to woman and ships but not so readily to a world. – GreenAsJade Dec 8 '15 at 10:56

I'd disagree with the accepted answer, and would suggest that it is because English has retained the gender of various objects, even though it does not have the formal gender system that Spanish or German have.

  • Mother Earth is feminine
  • Forms of transport are often feminine (Especially ships, but also cars, planes)
  • The ocean is feminine.
  • Fate is feminine.

Etc. This is not a formal part of the English language, but rather a convention that either echoes other languages that do have a gender system or that are based on traditional views.

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"Handsome" can be used for women as well as men, although it is less common. – Kit Z. Fox May 23 '11 at 12:58
@Kit: Yes, though it is not a synonym for "beautiful", and is a bit unusual. You'd choose "handsome" to describe something feminine in order to make a specific point, and not simply as a way to say "attractive". – Wayne May 23 '11 at 15:54
So why can beautiful be used for a baby regardless of sex? Are babies feminine? – Kyralessa May 23 '11 at 22:43
@Kyralessa: Good observation. I think beautiful is applicable to most anything that's attractive, except a man. You can say that a man is beautiful, in the same way that you can say that a woman is handsome, but it is unusual and so you'd be perceived to be making some kind of point. (Also, small children have historically been lumped with women in times of peril, such as "You get the women and children out of here, while we defend the fort." Or you'll see accusations that an army was killing "innocent women and children". But that may not apply here.) – Wayne May 24 '11 at 13:01
Italian, which has a former gender system, uses beautiful (bello/a) for both men and women. I don't see why English speakers can't. – pazzo Jun 2 '15 at 9:10

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