When debating the true meaning of a word, one's first move is usually to look it up in the dictionary. Contrary to popular belief, however, those who write the dictionary don't define words from a place of all-knowing authority; instead, any lexicographer will tell you their job is to reflect вЂњgeneral usageвЂќ-to represent the contexts in which the majority of everyday speakers use a word at the time of its entry, even if that usage is controversial or problematic. So in reality, we all write the dictionary. And as language is constantly changing, a word's вЂњtrueвЂќ meaning doesn't really exist.
If someone asked me to define the word вЂњprettyвЂќ at this time and place in history, I would probably say something like вЂњa conventionally feminine, palatable sort of attractiveness.вЂќ It's a concept with which I personally have a fraught relationship-in middle school, I had a best friend with long legs, shiny hair, and perfect skin, and we were generally known as the вЂњpretty oneвЂќ (her) and the вЂњsmart oneвЂќ (me). Later in life, I'd learn that we both desperately wanted to be known as the other. But such is the reality for so many women who've been tacitly taught that one can be pretty or one can be smart, but it is almost impossible to be both at the same time.
Type the word вЂњprettyвЂќ into Merriam-Webster.com's search bar and you'll discover a long list of entries defining every nuanced form of the word, from its use as an adjective to describe a thing (a pretty necklace), a concept (a pretty mess, a pretty penny), or a person (a pretty girl) to its turn as an adverb to quantify something (pretty stupid, pretty ugly). The entry regarding human attractiveness reads as follows:
a: pleasing by delicacy or grace
b: having conventionally accepted elements of beauty
c: appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity
Clearly, lexicographers can tell that вЂњprettyвЂќ is a loaded term, and when used in the context above, it's something that many American women both desperately want to be but also resent in the very same breath.Stocksy/Guille Faingold
A quick background check on "pretty" will indicate that this word is very, very old (like medieval old) and has taken some drastic pivots andВ dips since its inception. According to The Word Detective, вЂњprettyвЂќ first appears in Old English (so, around 1000 years ago) as вЂњpraettig,вЂќ meaning вЂњcunning or crafty,вЂќ a modification of the word вЂњpraett,вЂќ meaning вЂњtrick.вЂќ Linguists postulate that the word was derived from cognates found in Dutch, Low Northern German, and Old Icelandic.В
Interestingly, though, вЂњprettyвЂќ totally disappears from written recordings for a few hundred years-it skips the whole Middle English period; Chaucer, for example, never uses it-but it surfaces again in the 15th century, now with the more positive meaning of вЂњcleverвЂќ or вЂњskillful.вЂќ It's not infrequent for a word to disappear from a language then come back again: With вЂњpretty,вЂќ Russian linguist Anatoly Liberman theorizes that it may have re-emerged when it did thanks to the thousands of people who were traveling back and forth between England and Germany at the time-the Germans may have reminded English speakers of that old word вЂњpraettigвЂќ and inspired them to bring it back.
From the 1400s onward, вЂњprettyвЂќ acquired more and more definitions, soon coming to mean вЂњelegantly made or doneвЂќ (like a pretty speech). Quickly, this positive connotationВ comes to describeВ things, places, and people. WhenВ applied to a woman or child, it meant вЂњaesthetically pleasing,вЂќ much like it does today. But British etymologist Michael Quinion says that for a while there, вЂњprettyвЂќ could even be used to describe men, either as good-looking (a pretty lad) or as вЂњbrave, gallant, warlike.вЂќ
Shakespeare certainly used вЂњprettyвЂќ this way. In As You Like It, King Lear, and Coriolanus, he repeatedly uses the word to characterize men as physically attractive (e.g., вЂњHow now, my pretty knave!вЂќ). Shakespeare was a big fan of the word вЂњprettyвЂќ in general and used it well over 100 times in his writing, taking advantage of almost every one of its potential meanings from вЂњcleverвЂќ to вЂњproperвЂќ to вЂњgoodвЂќ to вЂњconsiderableвЂќ to вЂњchildish or triflingвЂќ to вЂњattractive.вЂќВ
Speaking of Shakespeare, it must also be said that the author and Shakespearean scholarВ Gerit Quealy is convinced that the word "pretty," whichВ is spelled "pretie" in many old texts, might also be a diminutive form of precious, which was spelled "pretious" with a "t" in its early days. "DiminutiveВ is a key word here," Quealy explains, "because it seems often to refer to something small."
As a compliment specifically, вЂњprettyвЂќ weakened overВ itsВ centuries of use, and by the 1700s, it would onlyВ apply to men who were seen as dandies or fops (aka, men were overly concerned with their appearance). The wordВ diminished for women, too. In fact, as early as the 1500s, there was, as The Word Detective says, вЂњan implicit distinction in usage between 'pretty' and 'beautiful,' and 'pretty' was often used in a patronizing or even depreciative sense, especially in the form вЂњpretty little,вЂќ still very much in use today. ('We don't need to bother our pretty little heads about it.').вЂќ
вЂњIn this sense,вЂќ comments Quinion, вЂњpretty was applied, in rather a condescending way, to young women as a reduced version of beautiful.вЂќВ Through the years, the negativeВ use of the word for men has almost entirely faded, yet this weaker sense of feminine beauty has more or less remained.
With such a dramatic history, it's really no wonder whyВ so manyВ women feel ambivalent about being called pretty. To a lot of us, it feels reductive or belittling, yet because we've been taught that it's a good thing for a woman to convey a palatable, youthful form of beauty, we still aspire to it.
The good news is that language never stops evolving, never will, and scholars agree that young women-the very women society wants to be вЂњprettyвЂќ-often lead the charge of linguistic change. Whether it's because young women are more willing to use language creatively or because they're more likely to see language (as opposed to brute force) as a tool to gain societal power, they are usually at the forefront of newВ verbal trends. So if you're a woman who finds herself sick of our current definition of вЂњpretty,вЂќ feel free to change it. Twist it. Use it in a new way. Who knows? The dictionary could be soon to follow.ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHANIE DEANGELIS
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies-they can reflect culture, sexuality, race, and even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, soвЂ¦ welcome toВ The FlipsideВ (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society's definition of вЂњbeauty.вЂќ Here, you'll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we'd love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because everybody gets to be heard here onВ The Flipside.