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what does the first part of the sentence mean?

"Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters."

What is "mean beauty"? I have a hard time to look it up in a dictionary.

The sentence comes from this story: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/abelard-histcal.asp

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Mark Twain's rendition of the story is most entertaining, in The Innocents Abroad. – sq33G Nov 21 '11 at 8:49
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Mean as in small or poor, a mean person being somebody who doesn't give much. Unfortunately mean has a totally different meaning of 'average' which would be confusing!

So "no small beauty" = "definitely a beauty", the double negative is just for literary emphasis.

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So this phrase would be worded for clarification (but not nearly as poetic): "While beautiful, her greatest attraction was her intelligence." – music2myear Nov 21 '11 at 0:14
@music2myear, Yes - or perhaps just her abilities at scrabble ! – mgb Nov 21 '11 at 0:16
That's very possible. Though I'd imagine using that phraseology places the historical context possibly beyond the span of time in which we've had Scrabble. – music2myear Nov 21 '11 at 0:22
Thank you for the explanation! – Martin Vseticka Nov 21 '11 at 14:21

Mean has the general sense of being poor in quality or of little value, so no mean . . . conveys the opposite. It denotes something very good and of which the writer approves.

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'Mean' is 'average'. So, "Of no mean beauty..." suggests she is beautiful or above average, looks-wise.

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Only I suspect in the rather rarefied area of mathematical romantic literature. There may be people who would describe a women as 2 standard deviation above the mean in beauty - but I suspect they don't get many dates. – mgb Nov 20 '11 at 22:08
Maybe they're aiming too high, though 1σ women might not appreciate you telling them so. – JeffSahol Nov 20 '11 at 22:38
Are you measuring that in milihelens, @Martin? – TRiG Nov 23 '11 at 2:40
@TRiG - being the quantity of beauty required to launch 1 ship? – mgb Nov 23 '11 at 3:22
@mgb. Of course. – TRiG Apr 6 '12 at 23:15

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