Why do we say "Handsome is as handsome does"?

Well-Known Expressions

Handsome is as handsome does

Meaning:

Good deeds are more important that good looks.

Background:

Editor's note: From time to time we inadvertently set a clue that has two credibly correct answers. This is one of these times. While we had in mind handsome is as handsome does, for the purposes of drawing the winner we also accepted "happy is as happy does." With that said, to those who attributed this to Forrest Gump, we think you may wish to check again - we recollect Forrest Gump saying "stupid is as stupid does" but not "happy is as happy does".

The earliest known use of the proverb handsome is as handsome does is in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath" (c.1387) one of the stories/poems in his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan,
Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.

Which, thanks to www.librarius.com, translates broadly as:

Find him who is most virtuous alway,
Alone or publicly, and most tries aye
To do whatever noble deeds he can,
And take him for the greatest gentleman.


Chaucer is widely considered the greatest poet of the English Middle Ages. Unlike those who came before him, and many of his contemporaries who wrote in French or Latin, Chaucer wrote in the English vernacular thus lending credibility and legitimacy to the language. He is often referred to as the Father of English Literature. He is was the first poet to be buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, which today is known as Poet's Corner due to the wide range of poets, writers and playwrights now buried there including Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, Lawrence Oliver and Alfred Tennyson.

The earliest known use of the expression in its modern-day form is found in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (Book IV, Chapter XII):

“I, ma’am!” answered Mrs. Honour, “I am sorry your ladyship should have such an opinion of me. I amsure nobody can say any such thing of me. All the young fellows in the world may go to the divil for me.Because I said he was a handsome man? Everybody says it as well as I. To be sure, I never thought as itwas any harm to say a young man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any morenow; for handsome is that handsome does. A beggar wench!—”

The expression is also found today as "pretty is as pretty does" or "beauty is as beauty does." But it isn't really necessary to provide a feminine version given that handsome can be applied to both men and women - albeit the modern-day definitions for the sexes are a little different. Dictionary.com defines a handsome man as a person who is good-looking with regular, pleasing and well-defined features, and a handsome woman as someone who is fine-looking and dignified (that is to say, not necessarily traditionally beautiful).

This article has been edited to correct the earliest known reference in its modern form. Thank you Raymond!

Alphabetical list of expressions

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