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TL;DR— See title:

  • Are the attributes in “handsome girl” and “pretty boy” perfectly interchangeable?

  • Is there an implicit, gender-specific connotation in “handsome” (♂) and “pretty” (♀)?


This video called my attention for the first time to the none-analogy of those two German words:

  • dämlich (“stupid”, literally lady-ly)
  • herrlich (“magnificent”, literally mister-ly)

(Both do actually have a surprisingly different etymology.)

The presenter assumes that däm-lich was some sort of feminine version for herr-lich and cites,

like how in English, the word “handsome” is often associated with something that is masculine, and “pretty” with something that is feminine.

Is this true?

Does it sound weird to call a manly man “pretty” or a beautiful, feminine woman “handsome”?

Do English native speakers assume gender in consequence of the usage of either?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Drew, Hank, Mari-Lou A, tchrist Feb 23 '17 at 23:58

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Yes, calling a man "pretty" or a girl "handsome" sounds awkward and would be seldom used. I cannot think of a single instance of hearing a female called "handsome." In general, saying that a man is "pretty" implies that he has feminine characteristics or is said jokingly.

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    Randall, did you see the quote by @verbose Jane Austen's Emma in the comments above or the ELU link by @Edwin? 'handsome' for women, while not the most common, has a long history. Pragmatically, calling a woman handsome means she is good-looking but by implication not traditionally pretty/beautiful (otherwise you'd have used one of those words). – Mitch Feb 20 '17 at 3:11
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    Handsome is almost never used in that context in modern spoken English, at least in the U.S., regardless of the history of the word's usage. – Randall Whitlock Aug 17 '17 at 2:13
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According to LearnersDictionary.com:

While handsome is more often used for men, women can also be called handsome. When a woman is described as handsome, it suggests that she is very good-looking, and also healthy and strong. Handsome is less likely to be used to describe a woman who is petite or delicate.

The term is dated and rarely used in today's English according to The Urban Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say of handsome to describe a woman:

Of a person (occas. an animal): attractive and pleasing in appearance, esp. in having a well-proportioned figure and noble bearing; (now) spec. (of a woman) striking, stately, as opposed to conventionally beautiful or pretty

The OED has four quotations that refer to a woman, admiringly, as handsome; one from 1622, one from 1718, one from 1855 and the latest from 1908. My advice is not to use handsome to describe a woman; the danger of being misunderstood is too great.

As for pretty man, instinctively I say no!, but a Korean drama subtitled in English might signal a change. See DramaFever:

The prettiest man in the world is on a mission to seduce 10 different rich and powerful women for his own ambitions. But one adorable and poor girl with a huge crush on him just might change all of that.

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    Justin Bieber could be described as pretty. – aparente001 Feb 20 '17 at 5:26
  • So you would generally advise against using either “handsome woman” or “pretty man”, and instead stick to some of the less ambiguous attributes of attractiveness? – dakab Feb 20 '17 at 8:36

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