what does the first part of the sentence mean?

"Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters."

What is "mean beauty"? I have a hard time to look it up in a dictionary.

The sentence comes from this story: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/abelard-histcal.asp

  • Mark Twain's rendition of the story is most entertaining, in The Innocents Abroad.
    – sq33G
    Nov 21, 2011 at 8:49
  • I love this question. The phrase is strong and evocative, yet not plain, as the use of "mean" here distinguishes it. Unfortunately, mgb already provided an excellent answer! Upvoted question and answer.
    – Mark G B
    Dec 10, 2017 at 3:22

3 Answers 3


Mean as in small or poor, a mean person being somebody who doesn't give much. Unfortunately mean has a totally different meaning of 'average' which would be confusing!

So "no small beauty" = "definitely a beauty", the double negative is just for literary emphasis.

  • 3
    So this phrase would be worded for clarification (but not nearly as poetic): "While beautiful, her greatest attraction was her intelligence." Nov 21, 2011 at 0:14
  • 4
    @music2myear, Yes - or perhaps just her abilities at scrabble !
    – mgb
    Nov 21, 2011 at 0:16
  • 1
    That's very possible. Though I'd imagine using that phraseology places the historical context possibly beyond the span of time in which we've had Scrabble. Nov 21, 2011 at 0:22

Mean has the general sense of being poor in quality or of little value, so no mean . . . conveys the opposite. It denotes something very good and of which the writer approves.


'Mean' is 'average'. So, "Of no mean beauty..." suggests she is beautiful or above average, looks-wise.

  • 9
    Only I suspect in the rather rarefied area of mathematical romantic literature. There may be people who would describe a women as 2 standard deviation above the mean in beauty - but I suspect they don't get many dates.
    – mgb
    Nov 20, 2011 at 22:08
  • 3
    Maybe they're aiming too high, though 1σ women might not appreciate you telling them so.
    – JeffSahol
    Nov 20, 2011 at 22:38
  • 1
    Are you measuring that in milihelens, @Martin?
    – TRiG
    Nov 23, 2011 at 2:40
  • 1
    @TRiG - being the quantity of beauty required to launch 1 ship?
    – mgb
    Nov 23, 2011 at 3:22
  • @mgb. Of course.
    – TRiG
    Apr 6, 2012 at 23:15

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