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

Well-Known Expressions

Handsome is as handsome does

Meaning:

Good deeds are more important than good looks.

Background:

The earliest known reference to the sentiment expressed in this proverb 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 poetryintranslation renders into modern English as:

Look for the most virtuous man always,
In private and public, who sees his way
To doing the noblest deeds that he can,
There will you find 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 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 number of poets, writers and playwrights now buried there including Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson.

The earliest known use of the expression in its modern 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 am sure 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 it was any harm to say a young man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; 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." Strictly speaking, it isn't necessary to use a feminine version given that handsome can be applied to both men and women; albeit, the words as applied to the men and women today do have slightly different meanings: 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).

More expressions and their source

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