By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ugly is from the Old Norse ugglig-r, which denoted something that is to be feared or dreaded; it’s from the word ugga. And when the word first entered the English language, ugly was used to describe someone or something which inspired fear, dread, or horror. Because something that was deformed or in bad shape was likely to evoke such a response, the word came to refer simply to something that was deformed or hideous to look at.
But let’s face facts: ugly is a horrible word. It’s even horrible-sounding, with the guttural ug- sound and that harsh g. If we contrast the lilting lyricism of lovely or comely, we see just how much the word ugly is itself an example of what it describes.
So rather than using such a harsh, and harsh-sounding word as ugly, what other words might we reach for instead? Below, we introduce some of the best synonyms for ugly, followed by some useful antonyms.
There are three slightly different meanings of ugly which it’s worth distinguishing between:
a) ugly as in unattractive to look at;
b) ugly as in an unpleasant character or disposition; and
c) ugly as in the popular phrase things turned ugly, meaning they became violent or menacing.
Let’s start with a).
Since ugly is such a harsh word to describe someone or something, you may be in search of a more diplomatic synonym. One way of doing this is to take a positive word and simply negate it, so UNATTRACTIVE is sometimes used instead of ugly for this reason.
Someone (or something) that is unattractive may not be aesthetically pleasing, but isn’t full-on HIDEOUS – a word ultimately from the Old French hide meaning ‘horror’ or ‘fear’. (This is etymologically unrelated to the verb to hide, as in to conceal something or to secrete oneself away somewhere.) Indeed, FRIGHTFUL is another word, like hideous, which is now used to describe something ugly but which initially meant ‘inspiring fright’ or ‘inspiring horror’.
HORRID and FOUL are two more terms that can be used to convey the same idea.
Other un- formations which can serve as synonyms for ugly range from the fairly mild UNLOVELY (i.e., not lovely in appearance), UNPREPOSSESSING (i.e., not giving a favourable initial impression), and UNSEEMLY (i.e., unbecoming, unfitting, or even full-on indecent) to the more direct and extreme UNSIGHTLY (i.e., not at all pleasing to the eye) and UNPLEASANT (regarding the appearance of something or someone).
As you’ll have gathered, horror and fear and a general tendency to shock are a common feature shared by many ugly synonyms. The same is also true of AWFUL and APPALLING, a pair which refer to this idea of ugliness so extreme it shocks the beholder.
Curiously, awful was originally used as a positive or laudatory adjective, describing something so impressive it inspires awe. But that positive awe gradually turned to shock horror instead, and now the word awful can be used simply as a synonym for ‘bad’ – or, in this case, bad-looking, as in, ‘I’m sorry I look so awful today, but I didn’t have a chance to put on my make-up’, and so on.
As for appalling, something that appals causes dismay to such an extent that it may cause the beholder to recoil in horror. The word appalling is thought to be related to the adjective pale, implying that to appal someone was to cause them to turn pale with fear.
As for LOATHSOME, that refers less to fear than to disgust: something that is loathsome inspires not terror but nausea, because it is so unpleasant to look at. REPULSIVE, REVOLTING, and REPUGNANT carry similar connotations.
We’re now moving towards the stronger end of the spectrum of ugly synonyms. This end includes such words as GROTESQUE, which is from the Italian grotto,referring to a cave. The kind of sculptures found in old Italian caves were often characterised for their absurd and distorted appearance, and so the word grotesque – i.e., in the manner or style of cave or grotto artwork – came to be applied to anything similarly lurid or ridiculous in appearance.
Indeed, as a noun the word grotesque is still used to refer to the carvings on the outside of buildings: those which convey rainwater from gutters and have spouts are called gargoyles (from the same root as ‘gargle’), while those which don’t perform this function are grotesques.
This word is unrelated to GROSS, which comes from a word meaning ‘fat’, but is often employed more generally to refer to something disgusting.
A suite of less-than-sweet words can be used to describe something so unusual specifically in shape or form as to be hideously ugly. Such harsh terms include MONSTROUS and BEASTLY as well as the more neutral DISFIGURED, DEFORMED, and MISSHAPEN.
Returning to plain old unattractiveness, people who are less than aesthetically pleasing, but not necessarily full-on hideous – just nothing special, shall we say – can be described as PLAIN or HOMELY in appearance.
If we’re talking about b) somebody who has an ugly disposition or character, then the words VILE, DISAGREEABLE, DESPICABLE, OBNOXIOUS, NASTY, OBJECTIONABLE, and OFFENSIVE can all be useful.
As for c) something that turns ugly (such as a crowd or a scene), then the synonyms for that phrase include THREATENING, MENACING, DANGEROUS, HOSTILE, NASTY, ANGRY, and SINISTER.
Happily, there are plenty of popular antonyms for ugly: words which mean the opposite, and instead can be employed to describe someone or something that is pleasing or pleasant to look at.
Popular choices include ATTRACTIVE, BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY (usually of women or girls), HANDSOME (usually of men or boys), LOVELY, COMELY, GOOD-LOOKING, and GORGEOUS.
Others include FAIR, BEAUTEOUS, BONNY, RADIANT, ALLURING, STRIKING, and STUNNING. We have discussed some of the most commonly used synonyms for ‘beautiful’ in a separate post.