What's the difference between "manful" and "manly"? Both are adjectives derived from the word "man", and Wiktionary has fairly similar definitions of the two words: manful versus manly.

Is manly usually used when describing a man or woman, while either is fine when describing something other than a person?

  • 2
    Does anyone ever say manful? I've never ever heard it. Maybe it's a BrE thing? Lemme go check nGrams... Yeah, no one says manful, and never really has. Even manly has been fading since the 19th C.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 22:51
  • @DanBron I came across it from a Korean person learning English, so maybe they chose the wrong word.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 22:55
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    It definitely sounds like a solecism of a non-native speaker.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 22:56
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    There's a hymn with the injunction 'Fight manfully onward'. I think the adverb may be more common than the adjective. / Though both are old-fasioned to archaic, they are 'largely synonymous', but you'd never hear a moustache described as 'manful'. 'Manly' is broader, allowing 'fitting for a real man' beyond the 'resolute and brave' character requirement. Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 23:25
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    Manful sounds like a noun, a much larger quantity than a handful. I suppose if an overactive toddler around the house is quite a handful, then a husband with a manflu would be quite a manful… Commented Mar 26, 2017 at 7:27

1 Answer 1


As noted, manly is the commonly used term. Manful is a rare word with the following characteristics:

The perfect definition for manly:

can be found in an 1844 Greek and English lexicon, showing as it does a common thread in the understanding of manliness that runs from antiquity, through the 19th century, and up to how we employ the descriptor on AoM in the present day:

  • “Pertaining to a man, masculine; manly; suiting, fit for, becoming a man, or made use of by, as manners, dress, mode of life; suiting, or worthy of a man, as to action, conduct or sentiments, and thus, manly, vigorous, brave, resolute, firm.”

Manful (or manfully):

was sometimes used in a similar way as manly. But there were some shades of difference between the two descriptors, even if people weren’t always sure exactly what those differences were. 1871’s Synonyms Discriminated, argued that:

  • Manful is commonly applied to conduct; manly, to character. Manful opposition; manly bravery. Manful is in accordance with the strength of a man; manly, with the moral excellence of a man. Manful is what a man would, as such, be likely to do; manly, what he ought to do, and to feel as well.”'

Another lexicographer put it this way:

  • “Manful points to the energy and vigor of a man; manly, to the generous and noble qualities of a man. The first is opposed to weakness or cowardice, the latter to that which is puerile or mean. We speak of manful exertion without so much reference to the character of the thing for which exertion is made, but manly conduct is that which has reference to a thing worthy of a man.”


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