By Dr Oliver Tearle
Beauty is an important subject for many writers, whether describing a person, a landscape, a painting, or even another piece of writing. We talk of ‘beautiful poetry’, a ‘beautiful view’, and ‘beautiful works of art’. But as these examples show, the word ‘beautiful’ can soon be overused so it is emptied of much, if not all, meaning.
Clearly we need some synonyms for beautiful: words which mean the same as ‘beautiful’ or have a similar meaning, which can provide alternative terms for use in speech or writing. Here are some of the best beautiful synonyms.
Synonyms for ‘beautiful’
One of the leading synonyms for the word ‘beautiful’ is ATTRACTIVE, a word whose derivation signals that something attracts others to it, almost like the force of magnetism or gravity. The word ‘attractive’ has been around since the Middle Ages, but it was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it began to emerge as an alternative way of describing someone who is beautiful or who arouses romantic feelings. Frances Burney, the novelist, uses the word in this sense in her 1782 novel Cecilia: ‘Young, rich, and attractive, the world at your feet.’
Perhaps attractive isn’t quite strong enough for what you want to convey. But then perhaps ‘beautiful’ is too fulsome, and you want to rein in the adulation a little? There’s always GOOD-LOOKING, meaning ‘physically attractive’, which has been in use since the early eighteenth century. It replaced the earlier term WELL-LOOKING, which is now archaic and out of use.
LOVELY is now also widely in use as a synonym for beautiful or attractive, although it can sound a little too nice, if you will – like the word nice, it is too general in its meaning, too vague, to convey conviction. But it can have its uses. Curiously, the word lovely initially meant someone who was in love, or amorous; but by the Middle Ages it had already started to become used in the modern sense that’s familiar to us.
Meanwhile, FAIR, now a word with a dozen other prominent meanings (including ‘blond(e)’, of course, as in the ‘Fair Youth’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets who had light hair and complexion), meant ‘beautiful’ before it meant anything else, and is still often used to convey somebody’s physical beauty/
Curiously, the OED doesn’t define GORGEOUS as a simple synonym for ‘beautiful’: its meaning was, and remains, more specific than that. Since the late Middle Ages it has meant ‘adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent’ (OED), and it has come to mean ‘dazzling’, but not, in the strictest sense, ‘beautiful’, although it’s often regarded as pretty much interchangeable with beautiful or attractive.
Anyway, gorgeous comes from the Old French gorgias meaning ‘elegantly or finely dressed, fashionable, gay’, and appears to be unrelated to the verb gorge, meaning to eat greedily.
A more poetical term for beautiful is BEAUTEOUS, a literary word which means pretty much the same as ‘beautiful’, though it can also imply a more sensuous or voluptuous appearance. William Wordsworth begins one of his poems with the words, ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’.
The word RADIANT, ultimately derived from the Latin radius meaning ‘ray of light’, is not a strict synonym for beautiful but it can be used to describe a beautiful person in certain contexts. It has been used since the late sixteenth century to mean ‘glowingly happy’: this is the kind of beauty where happiness or joy is a key component, and for this reason the word is often applied to a bride on her wedding day, proverbially the ‘happiest day of her life’.
A term that’s especially popular in Scotland is BONNY, which is possibly derived from (or influenced by) the French for ‘good’. But again, we need to be alive to the distinctions between this word and the word ‘beautiful’, for they are not quite perfect synonyms: the OED informs us that bonny is often used to describe a woman who is pleasantly attractive rather than stunningly beautiful – or, in other words, a woman who is PRETTY.
Pretty has had a curious journey. It comes from a Scottish word prat which means a trick or practical joke; this word appears to be unrelated to the word prat meaning the buttocks (or a stupid person). So pretty initially described someone who was cunning or fond of playing tricks; it was then applied to something that was ingeniously conceived or artfully made, before coming to have its most prevalent meaning, namely AESTHETICALLY PLEASING or CHARMING and attractive, especially in a diminutive or delicate way.
And speaking of charming, there are quite a few ‘-ing’ words which can be used synonymously with ‘beautiful’. ALLURING, like charming, suggests (as the origins of pretty also do) that someone is so attractive that there must be some sort of trickery or even magic at work, that they can charm or lure someone into admiring them.
STUNNING and STRIKING also do a similar job. The idea of being ‘knocked out’ or ‘floored’ by someone’s beauty is an old one, especially among poets.
A synonym for ‘beautiful’ that’s fallen somewhat out of fashion is COMELY. The ‘come’ has nothing to do with the English verb (innocent or otherwise), but is instead from the Old English cȳme meaning ‘fine, handsome’. As this derivation indicates, the word has been in use since the days of Anglo-Saxon, prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. Curiously, its meaning became somewhat watered down over the centuries, so it eventually came to have a narrower meaning of ‘pleasant in appearance but not strikingly beautiful’ (OED).
There are other ‘-ly’ adjectives which have been used as synonyms for beautiful: GOODLY (now archaic and out of fashion) and SEEMLY (obsolete) are the main ones (along with lovely, of course, which has survived).
HANDSOME has a curious etymology. As the word implies, it initially related to hands, and meant ‘easy to handle or control’. From there, it came to refer to someone whose conduct was gracious and becoming, so similar to someone who was easy to handle – i.e., someone who would follow the rules and conventions of society. And from ‘gracious’ it developed into a synonym for ‘elegant’ or ‘stylish’ and, by extension, ‘attractive’.
RAVISHING is described by the OED as ‘in weakened use’ when applied to a beautiful or attractive person; it’s from the verb ravish, which means to carry off or violate someone, usually a woman.
HOT, meanwhile, originated in the United States in the early twentieth century, and was originally applied specifically to women. Now, of course, anyone can be described as being ‘hot’ if they’re deemed sexually attractive, regardless of gender.
A more ‘scientific-sounding’ synonym for beautiful is PULCHRITUDINOUS, derived from the noun pulchritude, from the Latin for ‘beauty’. This is somewhat archaic (so outdated) now, and used chiefly in more high-flown literary contexts, or in a jocular or humorous fashion.
PHOTOGENIC is a more recent coinage, but older than you might realise, recorded as early as 1922. This synonym for beautiful is obviously more specialised, referring specifically to someone or something that shows up well in photographs – someone who ‘takes a good picture’, as the phrase has it, in that ‘the camera loves them’. The equivalent term TELEGENIC, for someone who looks good on television, followed in 1936.
Antonyms for ‘beautiful’
Let’s conclude with a few of the commonest antonyms for the word ‘beautiful’: words which convey the opposite meaning.
UGLY is perhaps the most readily suggested antonym. Its meaning is almost universally understood. It’s from an Old Norse word denoting something to be feared or dreaded, and this quality is present in other prominent antonyms for ‘beautiful’, such as DREADFUL and FRIGHTFUL. The same goes for HIDEOUS, from the Old French hide meaning ‘horror’ or ‘fear’.
One way of finding some of the best antonyms for ‘beautiful’ is simply to negate existing synonyms with an un- prefix, as in UNATTRACTIVE and UNLOVELY. And although sightly is not in mainstream use, its opposite, UNSIGHTLY, is, as another word for ugly.
REPULSIVE, GROTESQUE, and MONSTROUS are all even stronger terms than ugly to denote the opposite of ‘beautiful’. Grotesque is from the Italian grotto, meaning ‘cave’, and was originally applied strictly to paintings – the implication being that such artwork was fit only for the walls of caves, and so not very polished or sophisticated. The word’s meaning broadened with time, however, and it now denotes something bizarre to the point of being hideous.