Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

beauty pendant
Pendant by RiverwalkDesigns (www.etsy.com)


Etymology always makes me happy. It’s some of the best useless information around, and I’m stocked with trivia about the origins and histories of words. And then sometimes it turns out to be useful after all: here are some delightful facts about the words beauty, pretty, gorgeous and glamour, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

I thought about this while reading the medieval uses of the word beauty, as you do, and I noticed the word burde in this quote from 1375 by William of Palerne:

“A worschipful lady, þat burde was of beuaute briȝtest in erþe.”

(“A worshipful lady, that woman was, in her beauty, brightest on earth”. My translation, i.e. an educated guess)

The word burde for woman caught my eye because in British slang young women are often referred to as birds, although this has reduced in recent years thanks to the latest rise of feminist activity. Could it be that this mildly offensive bit of slang dates back to the Middle Ages? And could this, just maybe, be the origin of the American slang use of chick?

A hot chick. Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci 1489-90 (wikipedia.org)

So then I looked up pretty, and was surprised by the primary definition:

1. a. Originally: cunning, crafty. Subsequently: clever, skilful, able.
b. Cleverly or elegantly made or done; ingenious, artful, well-conceived.

It’s only the second definition with which we are now more familiar:

2. a. Of a person, esp. a woman or child: attractive and pleasing in appearance; good-looking, esp. in a delicate or diminutive way.

I also found that the derogatory use of “pretty little” – as in “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” – has been in use since the Middle Ages too:

c. In collocation with little. Freq. depreciative.

1450  (c1410) >Hist. Holy Grail xxvii. 228 (MED), The Ademawnt..hath no More strengthe Aȝens the Eyr..Thanne A lytel praty fownteyne Aȝens Al the grete See.

I think this means, “The adamant has no more strength against the air than a little pretty fountain against all the great sea”. Gotta love that Middle English.

But that’s a digression. The definition of pretty as something artfully made becomes even more interesting when you look up gorgeous:

Etymology: Old French gorgias; elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay. Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent: of persons (with reference to dress).

So both pretty and gorgeous – two of our most used words to describe an attractive person – originally referred to something artificially, cunningly, elegantly made. Could this be the origin of our centuries-old fear that human beauty is a cunning deception, or is it just a reflection of that fear? The conflict between artificial and natural beauty, wherever you decide to draw the line between them, has been responsible for condemning women as whores and elevating them as deities, and this still happens today. Just as wearing makeup was once the prostitute’s mark, people still say that someone looks slutty if they are wearing too much makeup (which is how much exactly??).

I find it a little disturbing that some of the central issues we have with beauty (especially feminine beauty) are actually inscribed in the very words we use to describe it. There’s no getting away from these tensions. But it is useful to recognise that sexism and misogyny (to name just two problems) are deeply embedded in our language, and if we want to sort them out we will have to go right back to the beginning. See you there.


9 responses to “Lexicon of Beauty: the pen is mightier than the mascara

  • chloeroberts93

    This is fascinating stuff! Just goes to show that “pretty”, “gorgeous” and “bird” are by no means new words (as we previously thought)

  • BroadBlogs

    What an interesting history lesson. Really interesting to think how the words change in meaning and what caused that change.

  • carinaintheory

    I couldn’t find much to back up my speculations, so I hope they aren’t too off the wall!

  • Vivienne

    I adore etymology, and I love that you have included those original characters in your Middle English quotes. I identified the thorn and the yogh. Bring ’em back, I say.

    Wiktionary says that “burd” comes from “burde” (young woman); comes from Old English “byrde” meaning “of noble birth” (cf “bride”) and is not anything to do with “bird” in the avian sense, or the colloquial sense meaning a young woman. Without having looked it up, I would have certainly come to the same conclusion you did. My Shorter OED confirms “burd” meaning “young woman” but notes that it is “long obsolete”.

    Mind you, “mascara” comes from the word “mask” and is easily identified as such. A mask: something you apply to hide your true face?

    Fascinating topic, as usual.


  • carinaintheory

    Thanks Vivienne – I love Middle English too! I also read the Wiktionary piece saying that burde did not lead to bird, but it didn’t have any evidence to back it up, and I couldn’t find anything else on the subject so I decided to write up my speculation anyway. I know that wouldn’t fly in academia 😉

  • diahannreyes

    Loved this post and the wisdom in it… words often have more power than we give them… and their meanings can be restrictive/destructive and on the other side of the spectrum-expansive.

  • Ruby

    Let words fly forth across the night
    Where stars and moon alone do shine
    And let them gather deep and bright
    In books that speak of thoughts divine…

  • sweetyshinde

    Etymology, thanx for the intro to new vocabulary.
    ‘bird-watching’ had been in use for a long time a slang for boys gazing at pretty girls. .

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