Q From Barbara Storm: I am trying to locate the origin of the word pretty and its early usage. It apparently had a different meaning in early English that is unrelated to the way we currently use it.
A That’s correct. It is first recorded in Old English, when it had the sense of “trick, deceit”. Then it disappears from the recorded language for some centuries, turning up again in the 1400s in a variety of meanings, none of them exactly equivalent to the Old English form. It could mean “clever, artful”, or “something ingeniously or cleverly made”. And it could be applied to a man, as “brave, gallant, warlike”, which weakened down the years until it was used in the eighteenth century in the phrase “a pretty fellow”, meaning a swell or a fop. But the word also existed in a weakened sense, very much like our modern nice — pleasing or satisfactory in a vague sort of way. In this sense it was applied, in rather a condescending way, to young women as a reduced version of beautiful.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!