I'm looking for either a single word or a very short (really, as short as possible) phrase that could be defined (literally or metaphorically) as:

"beauty that is possessed due to or despite the pain, suffering, darkness, brokenness, disturbing qualities, malformation, etc. belonging to the entity in question."

It does not necessarily need to reference any of those (traditionally) negative qualities explicitly; you can replace them with a blanket statement such as "a quality that is traditionally viewed as negative or in opposition to wellness."

The word/phrase could be in English or any other language. If it is in a language other than English, it will still be used in the context of English as a loan-word.

The word/phrase does not need to literally mean this; even if it refers to this concept only in metaphor I will accept it.

This word or phrase does not need to be in formal usage or be in a traditional dictionary. What I mean by this is that the word may be one that is found only in a particular literary or scholarly work(s), or is in common parlance. Therefore, slang is acceptable, as is a word that is only seen in a specialized academic community, or even a word made up by a well known and reputable writer. I don't want nonsense words you make up.

An example sentence illustrating the intended usage is "She [a horribly scarred young woman] possessed a profound and unsettling _____."

An adjectival form of this idea would also be acceptable, in which case an example sentence could be "The ______ scene filled the explorers with unexpected awe."

Note that the word or phrase need not obey the specific structure of those sentences, as they were supplied simply to illustrate the general direction of usage.

  • 'French'. The word is 'French'
    – Mitch
    Mar 1, 2016 at 20:44
  • bittersweet (adjective) - both pleasant and painful or regretful Mar 1, 2016 at 20:47
  • Bittersweet is not specific enough, as it could refer to many qualities other than beauty. Also, saying "bittersweet beauty" would most likely be interpreted as a beauty you enjoy but is also painful. That is also not specific enough, though I suppose potentially applicable. It is important to note that the beauty itself is not necessarily painful (to the person perceiving the beauty); the possessor of the beauty is the one who may be in pain. An important distinction. Thank you anyways.
    – Naomi
    Mar 1, 2016 at 20:54
  • I like "tortured beauty," however it is somewhat constrained (constrained to cases of the subject being in pain or appearing as if they are); I need something which is inclusive of other types of qualities (along the lines of what I specified in the original post).
    – Naomi
    Mar 1, 2016 at 21:07
  • Hi Naomi, please keep in mind that a very similar question already exists. That said, depending on the cause of the pain, and how intense you wish to portray it, 'melancholic' or 'melancholy' can be used as well. Observing the range of situations you are looking for a word for (from awesome sight to scarred woman), I am not sure if such a words exists, purely based on how each situation might have a different root cause, With different root causes, often different words are used due to connotation.
    – Terah
    Mar 1, 2016 at 21:18

2 Answers 2


"Tortured beauty" comes to mind, although you mention in your comment that you find it "constrained to cases of the subject being in pain or appearing as if they are." So onward,

"There was no guile there, no artifice or coquetry, just that terrible aching beauty. -Paul Adam, A Nasty Dose of Death from http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/coquetry


"Such aching beauty, at the cost of solitude." from https://www.foboko.com/sentence-dictionary/english/solitude


"The mind passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage; The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; The heart-breaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it. -Robinson Jeffers, Tor House, Carmel, October 1, 1927" from "Credo" in The Women at Point Sur, page 239 at http://tinyurl.com/zklw6ko


"All changed, changed utterly; A terrible beauty is born. W.B. Yeats – Easter 1916, from http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus/beauty

If I can think of others, I will edit them into my answer.

  • Reading these additional phrases you have come across leads me to a greater understanding of the first to come to your mind, as well as what I should be seeking out in general. I was at first trying to find a word (or short phrase) to use as a sort of stand in for the concept as a whole, a piece of nomenclature which could simply be put down to reference something much larger. I now realize that you are presenting a different approach- characterizing it indirectly.
    – Naomi
    Mar 2, 2016 at 2:38
  • What I mean by that is that instead of describing the aspects of that which is considered beautiful, or any personal emotional connection to that subject, the beauty itself is characterized as something separate than generic beauty, and in doing so the possessor of the beauty is described indirectly, by implication. The beauty itself is personified and given characteristics of effect. The quote from Robinson Jeffers encapsulates the idea nicely: the beauty and its powerful affect exist independent from the perceiver.
    – Naomi
    Mar 2, 2016 at 2:39
  • So, one simply must come up with an adequate portrayal of the beauty- and I think such phrases as "terrible beauty" do a very good job at attempting this. Though this is not quite a perfect answer for the original interpretation of the question, it works and answers the question in a different respect, so I will mark it as the solution. I will consider the options you've presented and perhaps, or perhaps not, continue my search with new eyes. Thank you very much.
    – Naomi
    Mar 2, 2016 at 2:46
  • @Naomi- Thank you for accepting my answer while still seeking the perfect word or phrase. The Jeffers quote is a hand-written inscription on the front fly-leaf of my signed copy of the book, which suggests its importance to the author. The depth of your questions and comments and your facility with language make you a most welcome addition to the EL&U community. Mar 2, 2016 at 15:24

I think the word you're looking for is pathos:

the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity, or of sympathetic and kindly sorrow or compassion. (from Dictionary.com)

The adjectival form of pathos is pathetic, which has less power in this context, since it is used far more commonly as a descriptor of a wholly negative quality, so perhaps poignant would be a more appropriate adjective.

  • That is a very elegant solution, however somewhat astray from what I am seeking. Pity, sympathy, or compassion are all aligned with this concept, however none express the important idea of beauty. You may well feel sympathy or compassion for the entity possessing the quality I'm seeking out, however the perceived beauty is separate from such feelings and is the focus of this concept. Thank you anyways.
    – Naomi
    Mar 1, 2016 at 21:25
  • Given the scope of the question, I too feel that 'pathos' is more of a concept unrelated, or only applicable to a small section, of what the OP is looking for. Depending on why the word is sought (for example a novel), the feeling might be better of being described, rather than consensed to a singular word or abbreviation of what could be a mental image creating description of how the characters are feeling :)
    – Terah
    Mar 1, 2016 at 21:30
  • To answer Terah's proposition of a full description: The usage (a name/title for a particular thing which I won't specify here) actually dictates that this concept is represented by a singular word or very short phrase.
    – Naomi
    Mar 1, 2016 at 22:40

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