By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘charming’ is often used to describe somebody who is attractive, charismatic, and able to win people over through a combination of either good looks or a powerful personality – or, indeed, both. It’s easy to forget that the word originated in ideas surrounding magical or mystical enchantment, where charms were used as supernatural means of (supposedly) controlling and influencing others.
For this reason, being charming isn’t always an out-and-out positive thing, even though the word is often employed in a laudatory way. The word charm is derived from the Latin carmen meaning a song, verse, oracular response, or incantation.
This is how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines this sense of the verb ‘to charm’: ‘To influence, enthral, powerfully attract or engage (the mind, senses, etc.) by beauty, sweetness, or other attractive quality; to fascinate, captivate, bewitch, enchant, delight.’ With that in mind, what other ways of describing somebody charming are there, other than (over)relying on that single adjective?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the best synonyms and antonyms for ‘charming’.
Someone who charms also pleases, so a couple of good synonyms for charming are the pair PLEASING and PLEASANT. The words AGREEABLE and LIKEABLE are two more: someone who is charming is likeable, having an almost mesmerising ability to win us round and find their company and their personality to our taste.
CHARISMATIC is another good synonym for ‘charming’. Its etymology is interesting. It’s from the ancient Greek meaning ‘grace’ or ‘favour’ and initially had a narrowly religious application: charisma was ‘a free gift or favour specially vouchsafed by God; a grace, a talent’ (OED).
Indeed, it was only in the twentieth century, surprisingly recently, that charisma became attached to non-religious contexts: the OED records 1930 for its first citation in this more secular sense, when the word came to be used for ‘the capacity to inspire devotion or enthusiasm’.
Somebody who is charismatic possesses, we might say, great charm, with their power of attraction to others so great that it’s almost like a ‘God-given’ talent or gift divinely bestowed. This kind of charm, though, is most commonly used of leaders – political leaders, heads of organisations, or people who are the driving force behind a particular movement.
The word LOVELY, much like ‘nice’ when describing someone or something, is rather vague and watered-down, but can serve as a nice synonym for the idea of being charming, as can DELIGHTFUL: one who charms also delights or brings happiness.
Does a charming person have to be physically beautiful or handsome? Not necessarily: somebody who is conventionally unattractive in terms of their aesthetic appearance may nevertheless be charming because of the force of their personality, their charisma, and their ability to endear others to them. For this reason, the word ATTRACTIVE can be used synonymously with charming because attractiveness doesn’t begin and end with beauty: one can ‘attract’ others by the power of personality or sheer charm.
Nevertheless, attractiveness of all kinds is often a feature of charming people, who can be described as APPEALING, ENDEARING, ADORABLE, and even CUTE. These last two synonyms show how wide and even vague the definition of charming has become, in that it is often less about the magnetic force of somebody’s manner or behaviour than it is about how pleasing to the eye they are.
And pleasing to other things, too? After all, there can be a romantic or even sexual appeal to some people who are dubbed ‘charming’; such people might also be called ALLURING or even SEDUCTIVE. Both of these adjectives capture the idea of a charming person seeking to win over or cajole another person (or many people) into liking them for one reason or another.
A suite of charming synonyms also convey the idea of casting a spell over others – of ‘charming’ them almost in a literal sense: ENCHANTING, BEWITCHING, CAPTIVATING, and FASCINATING all fall under this category, as do ENGAGING and WINNING.
Finally, a good trio of words which mean roughly the same as charming are worth covering. These are SMOOTH, SUAVE, and URBANE, all of which capture the idea of someone smooth-talking their way into others’ affections or good books.
If being charming is about having the power to attract others to you, then good antonyms for charming emphasise the opposite quality: the power to repel people. So REPELLENT and REPULSIVE are both among the most accurate antonyms for the idea of charm or charisma. Others include UNATTRACTIVE, UNPLEASANT, and even – returning to the common-but-not-essential quality of the charmer, good looks – UGLY.
DISAGREEABLE, OFFENSIVE, and BORING may also serve as good antonyms for charming, playing off some of the most prevalent qualities we find in charming people, namely agreeableness, a pleasing nature, and a capacity for engaging and interesting us.