Different kinds of beautiful

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Different kinds of beautiful

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Feb 04, 2014 2:36 pm

In English, we're accustomed to the notion of the collocation -- a particular combination of words that linguistic convention often groups together. (Indeed, many of these combinations are encountered so often that they may be regarded as clichés.)

Some fairly common examples are once upon a time, iron will, achingly beautiful, nerves of steel, red-blooded male, zero tolerance, mature reflection, appropriate measures and infinite patience.

In the abstract, most people would not think of beauty as consisting of several different types. Beauty is beauty, right?

However, it occurs to me that in practice, speakers of English don't actually reflect this perception in the way they describe something beautiful, especially when they are describing other humans. It seems to me that the words we choose are often affected both by our own gender and by the gender of what we are describing. Specifically, certain speakers will avoid using certain combinations either at all, or will use them only to describe males on the one hand, or only females on the other. Not only do we operate with collocations consisting of particular word combinations, it is as though we also operate with certain conceptual constructs which we have attached to particular verbal collocations. (And perhaps to some degree they are the same thing.)

For example, in the speech of both males and females, beautiful woman and beautiful girl occur far more often than beautiful man and beautiful boy; similarly for handsome man and handsome boy versus handsome woman and handsome girl.

Among females, the descriptions cute-looking man or gorgeous man would not be unusual, whereas few heterosexual males would describe a man as cute-looking or gorgeous. Similarly, hot tends to be used only for individuals regarded as sexually appealing to the speaker.

But as well as these adjectives (or adjectival phrases) for describing beauty which seem to be rather closely tied to the gender of the speaker, the gender of the person being described, and the sexual desirability of the latter to the speaker (or a combination of these factors), there are some which are not, such as good-looking, fine-looking and easy on the eye.

Decisions about which adjective to use thus often appear to be based on the assumption that beauty is of an intrinsically different type for males versus females, even though this assumption is not consistently applied.

My sense is that the adjectives we choose are implicitly biased by a social norm of heterosexuality. I suspect that as society's feelings about homosexuality become more accepting and less hostile, the adjectives we use to describe the visual appeal of others will become correspondingly less tightly-bound by gender. It will be intriguing to find out whether this prediction turns out to be correct.

It would also be interesting to know how much the adjective selection process in respect of the visual appeal of humans that is performed by speakers of other languages also reflects the state of gender politics and the extent of gender-based social expectations in the societies in which those languages are spoken.
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