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?

  • 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
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 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. :-) Commented Dec 12, 2013 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
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 3:57
  • Try it and find out.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:08
  • You can definitely still use "handsome" for a woman, and no, it's not derogatory (at least not in the US).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 17:19

8 Answers 8


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.

  • 3
    This is purely stereotypical which has no basis in the meanings of the actual words.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:07
  • 3
    Here's Merriam Webster. Handsome: "having a pleasing and usually impressive or dignified appearance ", Pretty: "attractive to look at usually in a simple or delicate way." Google's first definition for handsome: "(of a man) good-looking." Dictionary.com on handsome: "having an attractive, well-proportioned, and imposing appearance suggestive of health and strength; good-looking: ", on pretty, "pleasing or attractive to the eye, as by delicacy or gracefulness." I'm not sure what characterizes the "meaning of the actual words" in your mind if not definition AND usage. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 13:36
  • 2
    I don't see "rugged and angular" and "softer and more delicate" as necessary components of 'handsome' and 'pretty', which you have for some reason aligned with 'beautiful'.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 17:29
  • 1
    It's only gender atypical if one starts with presupposed notions of what gender typical notions are, which can only be stereotypes.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 17:32
  • I'm not attaching a value judgement to "typical," I'm using it in the sense of "average, common, popularly associated with." While there is an increasing acceptance of divergence from gender stereotypes, many people still prefer to be perceived as gender typical, which is why I added the warning that not all people would receive being characterized as having gender-atypical beauty as complimentary. It's a descriptive comment, not a prescriptive one. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:05

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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 19:20
  • 4
    @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
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 19:28
  • 3
    Couldn't you have found a better photo of Sigourney Weaver? (I agree that she's a most handsome woman.)
    – Pitarou
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 3:48
  • 1
    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
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 7:10
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Dec 19, 2013 at 0:23

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.


A woman who is described as handsome rather than beautiful or lovely is by implication one whose appearance aesthetically satisfies the observer but does not markedly stir his deeper feelings.

(M-W's dictionary of Synonyms)


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.

  • 1
    I agree here that 'handsome' would most likely not be used for a younger woman, no matter what her looks.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 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
    Commented Mar 20, 2011 at 23:29
  • Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She's twenty, which is some decades off from fifty.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 22:17
  • A book published in 1815 may not be the best source when discussing contemporary word usage.
    – dave
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 0:15
  • Sigourney Weaver was handsome even when she was young and at the same time she had a lot of sex appeal.
    – goji
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 8:37

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.


The Irish song "Tell Me Ma" includes the following line, referring to a woman as "handsome" as the first of multiple positive adjectives:

"She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the Belle of Belfast city."

According to the Wikipedia article linked to above, Sham Rock's recording of it in 1998 sold over 200k copies (>3M including compilation albums) and stayed on the UK top singles chart for 17 weeks, reaching #13. This is a relatively recent popular example repeatedly calling a woman "handsome." By context in the song, the woman referred to is a young woman of courting age and highly desirable ("all the boys are fightin' for her").

  • 3
    But this is a reviving of an old song. It hardly has a bearing on modern conversational usage. 'Lady Madonna' is an unusual descriptor. Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 22:54
  • If millions of people are hearing and repeating its usage, it may have a bearing on modern usage (causal arrow can go either way). Plenty of language usage (including introducing and increasing usage/meaning of words and phrases) has been shaped by popular music.
    – WBT
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 22:59

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

I suggest that it is a dated phrase. It enjoyed some popularity, and you can say it, and if you do you bring the meanings presented in other answers, but in doing so you bring a certain stuffiness or old-fashionedness to your sentence.

As the google ngram shows, it peaked in usage in the 80's. Since that's now over 20 years ago, it seems fair to say "it's dated".

note: google isn't smart with quoted phrases in its ngram urls. If you follow the link I provided, adjust the end year to 2015 and hit "search" to see the result.

  • Actually, Ngram shows it rising since 2000.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 1:20
  • Lies and statistics. 1999: 170 ; 2000: 153 ; 2008 158. Basically a flat line after 2000, at a level a mere 20% of its popularity in the mid 80s. Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 3:51
  • When you remove the quotes you get a much different picture.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 4:00
  • That's interesting. I dont know what it means, but it's still a tiny climb from a low based compared to the heyday of its popularity. Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 9:06
  • Actually, the term has nearly the same popularity now that it had in 1940. Yes, it did peak maybe 3x higher around 1900, but a lot has happened between then and now, and no term of this sort would be expected to remain static. ("beautiful woman" shows pretty much the exact same time profile, only it's always been maybe 4x more popular.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 3:06

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