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When it comes to esthetics, "plain" usually means bland or unexciting. A "plain sofa" means a sofa that no one will get really excited about, neither positively nor negatively. Ditto a dress. "Plain vanilla" doesn't mean it's bad ice cream either, just one without extra features.

However, when it comes to people, even more so with women, "plain" is often used in a way that implies ugly as in "plain Jane". It seems, to me, as if it is not meant to describe the person as average looking, but rather as ugly. A synonym, in this context would be "homely".

Is my perception correct? How did "plain" end up with an extra negative connotation, but really only when describing people? Was it originally a euphemism for ugly but has now just taken on that meaning directly?

As regards examples, here's what a sample of what a google search "plain jane" ugly returns:

Louise Roe Gives an Ugly Duckling New Feathers on CW ...www.nytimes.com › 2010/07/28 › arts › television Jul 28, 2010 - “Plain Jane” borrows from the annals of generic self-help as freely as it borrows from “What Not to Wear,” though it rejects that series's snarky ...

Pretty Ugly Love (Plain Jane Love Stories Book 1) eBook ...www.amazon.ca › Pretty-Ugly-Love-Plain-Stories-ebook Jane is an unattractive girl with low self esteem and secretly hides the pure envy and resentment she feels towards her two stunningly beautiful best friends.

What It's Like Being The Unattractive Girl | Thought Catalogthoughtcatalog.com › stella-hui › 2014/09 › what-its-like-being-the-u... Sep 25, 2014 - I've come to terms with being a Plain Jane, but for most of my life I've felt flat-out ugly. My mother always told me that there are no ugly women, ...

Basically, I highly doubt any woman aware of the term would take plain Jane as a compliment. Or even as a neutral statement.

Now, I might be wrong on my perception of English North American usage, which is what this question is about, but this is the type of connotation that motivated my question.

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    In my mind plain and ugly are two separate things. I do not use them interchangeably. – Jim Sep 4 '18 at 5:36
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    What is the source of the presumption of ugliness here? – Kris Sep 4 '18 at 8:14
  • In British English we don't use 'homely' in this sense; 'plain' is the usual word for an unattractive person. Also, my late mother told me that 'Jane' was a very unfashionable name in the early 20th century (presumably as a reaction against all things Victorian). Her name was Joan, a variant of the same name which was used instead. – Kate Bunting Sep 4 '18 at 8:41
  • @KateBunting Yes "homely" is one of those howlers, which has quite a different sense in Britain - "home loving". Another is "nervy", which Americans use to describe someone who has the nerve to do dangerous things. In Britain it means almost the opposite i.e. of a nervous disposition. – WS2 Feb 29 '20 at 22:56
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I think it is indeed euphemistic, based off this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Of ordinary appearance; not beautiful or good-looking; homely; euphem. unattractive.

"Plain" can in fact describe an object that is unattractive, but with the expression "plain Jane". Here's the OED's definition:

Plain Jane n. and adj. (also plain Jane) (a) n. a girl or woman who is unattractive or simple in appearance or dress; (hence) an object, etc., which is basic, not ornamental, unattractive, etc.; (b) adj. unadorned, simple, ordinary, undistinguished.

I'll also note that "plain" in this sense always seems to describe women/girls, not men/boys. When people refer to "Plain Bob" they're talking about a specific pattern of ringing bells.

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  • You still haven't answered the question, if there's a valid question in the first place. – Kris Sep 4 '18 at 8:15
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    Wouldn't the opposite of attractive be repulsive rather than unattractive? – nnnnnn Feb 28 '20 at 3:09
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It needs to be noted that, in the US, "plain Jane" is used metaphorically to mean "unadorned" or "unenhanced". For instance, a "plain Jane" version of a car would be absent any added chrome or "racing stripes" or other adornments. And the term is applied to everything from houses to computer programs. In the case of a kitchen it would imply a simple setup without fancy appliances and with rather mundane fixtures, but the implication would be that it was "comfortable".

It is only with humorous intent that I have ever heard/read of a woman as being "plain Jane", and to the extent that it is used I'd only interpret it to imply that the woman is not inclined to use excessive makeup, have fancy hairdos, or wear fancy clothes.

Note that this is the earliest instance of "plain Jane" that Ngram finds:

I allus keered for fancy names, er sech as sounded well,
A slippin' smoothly from the tongue -- Cath'rene ur Isabel
Isadora, Wilhelmine, Hellena, Josephine,
Er Hanner, er Susanner, 'Lizobeth, er Imogene,
Till I saw an awe-inspirin' girl, with her head well up in air,
An' a kinder look which seemed to say: "Just tech me if you dare !"
My theories all took flight -- my heart thumped lustily,
And acknowledged that plain Jane was good enough fer me!

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    "a "plane Jane" version of a car would" ... probably fly. :) – Greybeard Feb 27 '20 at 22:22
  • For objects, yes, totally agree. The very top of my question states that. For people, and especially women, not so sure. And it is precisely that difference that I find of interest. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Feb 27 '20 at 22:24
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - The point is that the term is not about women -- likely never was. So when applied to a person its meaning is inferred from it's meaning re inanimate objects. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '20 at 22:26
  • @Greybeard - Oops!! Before posting I corrected that error in one place, but I should have kept looking. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '20 at 23:40

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