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When I saw the film Forrest Gump, I first heard the expression “Stupid is as stupid does,” and inferred that (to Forrest, at least) it meant something like “Don’t judge me stupid because of my words, judge me only by my actions.” This sense was not totally clear, because he said this expression to people who had in fact judged him by his actions. And what’s more, the wording of the expression did not seem very suitable to that message. It seemed about equally amenable to "Each of us is as stupid as the things we do," which at least made some use of that word "as."

Anyhow, the other day I was watching the much earlier film The Candidate, and someone asked a woman whether she found Robert Redford handsome. She responded “Handsome is as handsome does.” I’d never heard that before, and it was news to me that this is sort of a set phrase, with different adjectives swapped in.

But today I’ve been looking into the expression on the web. I’ve found a lot of people there trying to puzzle out this weird construction. But here’s where things stand with me.

As the ancient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth. - A. Munday View of Sundry Examples in J. P. Collier John A Kent (1851) 78, c. 1580

He is handsome that handsome doth. - N. R. Proverbs 49, 1659

To be sure, I never thought as it was any harm to say a young man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does. - Fielding, Tom Jones (Book IV, Chapter XII), 1749

They are as heaven made them, handsome enough if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does. Goldsmith, Vicar of Wakefield, 1766

Mr. Digweed has used us basely. Handsome is as handsome does; he is therefore a very ill-looking man. - Jane Austen, Letter to Cassandra (1813-01-24)

‘They are – at first sight at any rate,’ laughed Pippin with a sudden relief after reading Gandalf’s letter. ‘But handsome is as handsome does, as we say in the Shire; and I daresay we shall all look much the same after lying in hedges and ditches.’ - The Lord of the Rings, Book One, Chapter 10, Page 170 Handsome is as handsome does. - Spirit of Times 297, 23 Aug 1845

‘Don’t you think her much better looking than Alda?’ ‘If handsome is that handsome does.’ C. M. Yonge, Pillars of House II. xvii., 1873

‘But he’s such a handsome, chivalrous, man.’ Handsome is as handsome does, thought York grimly. A. Williamson, Funeral March for Siegfried xxiv. 1979

So it appears that from the very start there was some ambivalence about adjectives and adverbs. But everyone before Jane Austin had “that” rather than “as,” going a long way toward making this construction understandable.

He is handsome that does handsome things.

Handsome is [he] that handsome [things] does

Handsome is that handsome does.

But since Jane, it’s been dicey.

Do I have this basically right? Is there a good story here about why Jane switched to "as," and why the switch prospered? Did she understand the expression some other way, or was the “as” construction somehow appropriate on the one understanding? I feel like I’ve heard British people in literature do this, using “as” where we would expect “that,” but as a mark of vulgarity.

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    youtu.be/njtYHiBG340
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 17, 2021 at 22:55
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    I've always known the expression as handsome is as handsome does, and assumed versions with other adjectives to be conscious imitations. According to this, Dickens used the 'that' version in 1849. I don't suppose Jane Austen originated the 'as' version; I guess both must have been current in the early 19th century. I understand as to mean in the way that. Feb 18, 2021 at 9:36
  • @Kate Bunting I think that three obstacles were a critical mass, completely hiding the meaning for me. The two recent changes, (1) “handsome” rather than “stupid” and (2) “that” rather than “as”, removed two obstacles and suggested (3) the missing words, which made sudden sense out of nonsense for me. (1) It makes sense to say that it’s actions not appearances that constitute true beauty, because of course references to beauty often intend appearances; but it does not really make sense to say that it’s actions not appearance that constitute true stupidity, because everyone already knows that.
    – Chaim
    Feb 18, 2021 at 17:55
  • The “stupid” version was deliberate nonsense, just a script-writer’s joke that I was missing. (2) The word “as” just bewildered; were you supposed to group the words to say that something “is as stupid as” something? I don’t think it would have cleared it up for me if Forrest’s momma had said that “stupid is in the way that stupid does.” What on earth could that mean? But once those first two confusions cleared up, (3) the use of that second “stupid” or “handsome” as a sort of adjective-adverb-hybrid also became clear, as the catastrophic ellipsis began to clear.
    – Chaim
    Feb 18, 2021 at 17:55
  • But I still don’t see why Jane Austin, or anybody else, would say “as.” Maybe she would expand it as "Handsome is he as are handsome the things he does," meaning "He is as handsome as the things that he does are handsome"? It's certainly graceful, put that way.
    – Chaim
    Feb 18, 2021 at 18:06

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The variant "handsome is as handsome does" appeared in print multiple times before Austen's 1813 letter to Cassandra Austen. The earliest instance that a Google Books search turns up is from 1776, when Austen was one year old, but there are a total of eight matches for this wording from before 1813, several of them from novels written by and (predominantly) for women.

From George Colman, The Spleen, or Islington Spa: A Comic Piece of Two Acts, excerpted in The Monthly Review (April 1776):

Mrs. Rub[rick]. Never more mistaken in your life, sister Tabby! There may be a little scandal indeed; but where there are agreeable men, and handsome women, there's always the case, you know.

Mrs. Tab[itha]. Ay, ay, handsome is as handsome does, as the old proverb goes.

From Anne Hughes, Henry and Isabella: Or, A Traite Through Life, volume 2 (1788):

Pray Miss (said the eldest, addressing Juliana) do you think cousin Betsy Mordant handsome? She is generally thought so, (answered our heroine.) Handsome! (cried Mrs. Burton) she is too conceited to be handsome; handsome is, as handsome does.

...

As for what she [Mrs. Burton] called baby faces, she never considered them as objects of admiration ; for those she happened to meet with in low-life she despised or passed by without observation, and when any young woman of fashion was extolled for her beauty, she would generally remark, that fine feathers made fine birds ; adding, with a look of superior knowledge and penetration, handsome is as handsome does.

From The Tragical History of the Children in the Wood (1790):

He [Pisarius] was now about two and twenty years of age, tall, and very handsome in his person, and so was his brother ; but the elder had the old proverb on his side , Handsome is as handsome does : For the gracefulness of his person was not a little heightened by the gratefulness of his disposition.

From Rose Cecil: A Novel, volume 1 (1797):

"Is there anything so remarkable," said the justice, who had observed his [Sir Edward's] surprise, "that a man should be in love with her."

"Certainly not ; Rose is a very pretty and a very good girl."

"Handsome is, as handsome does : beauty is but skin deep, you know ; though, to be sure, it is as well to have something fair and comely to look at. My first wife, God bless her, was but an ordinary one. ...

From John Trusler, Proverbs in Verse, or Moral Instruction Conveyed in Pictures for the Use of Schools (1800/1811):

Handsome is as handsome does.

From Miss Byron, Hours of Affluence, and Days of Indigence: A Novel, volume 4 (1809):

"Why, you must know," added Lovell, opening the door to our heroine's room, and following her into it, "my young Lady is over head and ears in love with Colonel Taunton ; to be sure, he is as handsome a man as one would wish to look at—but what of that, 'handsome is as handsome does,' I say ; and I never saw the least generosity in him.

From a review of Benjamin Smart, "A Letter Addressed to the Honourable House of Commons, on the Necessity of an Immediate Attention to the State of the British Coinage," in Satirist, Or, Monthly Meteor, (April 1, 1811):

He [Smart] next tells us of "the daily, the hourly applications which are made to him by respectable persons, to know how much he will give for guineas." By the way, this is no great proof of the scarcity of gold ; but, as we have great faith in the old adage, that "handsome is as handsome does," we are rather disposed to doubt the justness of application of the term respectable in the present case.

From "Happy Parties," in The Literary Panorama, and National Register (June 1811):

It was a fine warm day, and the ladies chatted together and seemed very agreeable, and the children began to laugh about the droll looking countenance of the coachman, observing, he had an enormous red nose; when Mrs. Plum remarked, that handsome is as handsome does, and as long as the man behaved well, his face could not be disagreeable.

It is not clear what prompted the sea change in common parlance from "handsome is that handsome does" to "handsome is as handsome does," but an Ngram chart indicates that the latter didn't overtake the former in frequency of print appearance until the early twentieth century:

Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that the "as" form of the expression had become sufficiently common by 1826 that an edition of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones published in that year revised the wording that had appeared in earlier editions of the novel. Here is the relevant excerpt from The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling volume 2 (1749):

'I, Ma'am!' answered Mrs. Honour, 'I am sorry your Ladyship should have such an Opinion of me. I am sure nobody can say any such thing of me. All the young Fellows in the World may go to the Divil, for me. Because I said he [Jones] was a handsome Man! Every body says it as well as I — To be sure, I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man is handsome ; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now ; for handsome is that handsome does. A Beggar Wench!——

And here the same excerpt from The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, volume 1 (1818):

"I ma'am!" answered Mrs. Honour. "I am sorry your ladyship should have such an opinion of me. I am sure nobody can say any such thing of me. All the yoiung fellows in the world may go to the devil for me. Because I said he was a handsome man? Every body says it as well as I. To be sure, I never thought as it was any harm to say a young man was handsome ; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now ; for handsome is as handsome does. A beggar wench!———"

One of the more striking things about Mrs. Honour's speech in both editions of the novel is that she uses "as" in place of "that" earlier in the same sentence that contains the proverb—"I never thought as it was any harm"—and yet Fielding originally has her uphold the then-current preference for the wording "handsome is that handsome does." In any event, it appears that occasional use of "as" for "that" was already established in English speech, at least among the servant class, by 1749, decades before the earliest Google Books matches for the wording "handsome is as handsome does."

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