Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Courageous or Cute? A Meditation on Being Pretty

I Am Not Pretty

I was working away on a new project this week, an edition of Margaret Cavendish’s comedy, The Convent of Pleasure, adding glosses and notes for words that might be unfamiliar to today’s reader and to indicate where some words have changed meanings entirely since the mid-seventeenth century, when Cavendish was writing. 

It was always fun for me to work with students reading medieval and Renaissance texts—they struggle with Chaucer’s Middle English and Shakespeare Early Modern English, but they also found the process revelatory. (Okay, to be honest, only some did—others wound up hating the reading and couldn’t wait for the semester to be over.) 

From a nineteenth-century edition of
Samuel Johnson's landmark
Dictionary of the English Language
So, for example, the word “silly.” In Chaucer’s time, it could mean someone who was happy or fortunate or innocent and harmless or deserving of pity or sympathy—so when Chaucer describes John, a cuckolded husband, as "silly" or Troilus, a suffering lover, as "silly," it is important to know how the meaning of “silly” has changed since the fourteenth century. 

And “nice.” Rather than meaning someone who was pleasant, considerate, and kind, the word “nice” could mean something silly or absurd or it could refer to a person who was dissolute. So when Shakespeare uses the word to describe a woman in Love's Labour's Lost, he does not intend it as a compliment. 

But for some reason, working with words and their meaning in my Cavendish text, I got to thinking about the word “pretty.” 

In Old English, the word prættig meant “tricky, sly, cunning, wily, astute” and then “clever, skillful, able”—in Middle English, a “pretty man” was a clever man. A philosopher could be described as “pretty” (1577), and it had nothing to do with his physical appearance. Lawyers and numerous “fellows” (1577-1712) were described as "pretty," all without irony. 

By 1400, the word had come also to mean, by extension, “bold, gallant, brave,” and even “courageous, warlike, or hardy,” and the Oxford English Dictionary is filled with examples of men, young and old, described as “pretty”—clerks, scholars, athletes, country laborers, city gentlemen. 

But as soon as the word “pretty” came to be associated with physical appearance rather than inner qualities, it began to be less “appropriate” as a way to describe men and more and more restricted in its use to women. 

So women are “pretty” now. Not cunning, not skillful, not bold, not courageous, but “pleasing in appearance, . . . esp. in a delicate or diminutive way” (though, as the New English Dictionary notes, “Pretty is somewhat of a condescending term.” In other words, pretty is not beautiful. And the Oxford English Dictionary adds, “Freq. depreciative,” illustrating these demeaning meanings with quotations that refer to “pretty little painted sluts,” “pretty little heads,” and “pretty little pop girl mode.”)