tall, dark, and handsome

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tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Dec 04, 2009 8:51 am

I had never thought about TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME when researching high, wide, and handsome, but there is a definite similarity in the two threesomes. And, in fact, they are occasionally used interchangeably (see 2000 quote below). And they both seem to have been born about the same time in the 2nd half of the 19th century – my earliest quotes for each being within three years of each other (see below).

In chronological order of publication date, here are what some sources had to say on TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME:


TALL, DARK AND HANDSOME: Winningly good-looking. A stock phrase current from the 1930s and typically applied to an admired or romantically viewed film actor such as Cary Grant (1904-1986)


TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME: Supposedly what a woman wants in a man’s appearance. This standard description of the romantic hero found in women’s fiction of the first half of the 1900s was given further currency by the 1941 film Tall, Dark, and Handsome. It starred dark-haired, good-looking Cesar Romero as an underworld boss who is really a softie at heart. See also strong, silent type.


TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME (proverbial phrase): Tall, dark, and handsome, denoting a type of attractive man [“It was Cary Grant that Mae West was talking about when she launched the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’ in ‘She Done Him Wrong’ (1933)” – see 1965 quote below]. [[OED’s earliest quote is from 1906 (see below)]]

SHORTER DICTIONARY OF CATCH PHRASES (1994) compiled by R. Fergusson from the work of Eric Partridge & Paul Beale [[from A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1985)]]

TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME: Originally a cliché applied to the romantic hero of a novel, play, etc.; used ironically and derisively as a catch phrase since around 1910. See also, strong, silent, type. [[I was unable to find any ironical or derisive uses anywhere near as early as 1910 and it, in fact, it was hard to find any at all.]]

I HEAR AMERICA TALKING (1976) by Stuart Flexner

TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME: Late 1920s. This Hollywood term was used occasionally to refer to Rudolph Valentino (who was not exceptionally tall) but more popularly applied to Caesar Romero when he played the lead in the 1941 movie Tall, Dark, and Handsome [[it’s ‘Cesar’ – ‘Caesar’ was Julius]]

First, here’s an early quote I stumbled upon which may have been a precursor to HIGH, WIDE, AND HANDSOME as well as TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME:
<1855 “His forehead, was, high, broad, and handsome — his hair and eyes black — his features fine and expressive — and his voice as musical as Apollo's lute.”—The Escaped Nun: or, Disclosures of Convent Life; and the Confessions of a Sister of Charity by J. M. Bunkley, page 320>

The quotes which follow include some of the many examples I found which predate the OED’s 1906 quote, with my earliest being from 1866. A very interesting point, which wasn’t mentioned in any of the sources I checked, is that TALL, DARK, AND HANDSOME applied to women as well as men up until the early 20th century. And, in fact, my earliest example (1866) did refer to a woman. My second oldest example, from one year later (1867), however, referred to a man. So, originally, the expression was not gender-specific.

The following set of quotes refer to women:
<1866 “Twenty Thousand Husbands Wanted . . . Lonely One, with a little property, and twenty years of age, wants a husband to protect her. She is tall, dark, and handsome.”—Once a Week an Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Popular Science and Art (London), Vol. I, January–June, page 614> [[making fun of the women-looking-for-husband ads, which were not uncommon in what the author refers to as “‘the cheap papers’ (as there is never any news in them I cannot call them newspapers)” (also see 1867 quote in the set below which refers to men)]]

<1882 (short story) “Madame Pack was a lady who came to Oxford once every year and gave exhibitions of mesmerism and electro-biology. . . [[she]] was no mean proficient in inducing such phenomena, and her proficiency was much assisted by her physique: tall, dark, and handsome, she was ordinarily pleasant-looking enough, but, when needful, she would throw into her looks and gestures an imperiousness which fascinated the impressionable ‘subject,’ as a snake fascinates its prey.”—New York Times, 2 April, page 11>

<1895 “The bride-elect is tall, dark, and handsome, and quite a favorite here . . .”—Washington Post, 10 November, page 16>

<1898 “She is tall, dark and handsome, with a vivacity of manner which makes her extremely popular, . . .”— The Star (New Zealand), 1 January, page 3>

<1902 “Miss Collins, now a New Yorker . . . is twenty-eight years of age, tall, dark, and handsome, while Col. Tobias is a widower, seventy-five years of age . . . a prominent clubman and man-about-town.”— New York Times [[breach of promise of marriage suit – she won]]

<1914 “One of Von Wagner’s wives was formerly Miss Anna Kohler of Chicago. She is tall, dark, and handsome.”—Chicago Daily Tribune, 6 December, page 1>

<1992 (book review)“ Terri de la Peña's Margins is a first novel centered on a young writer's search for identity: coming of age, coming out. . . . But the woman who steals the book, and Veronica, is the Tejana, René Talamantes. Tall, dark, and handsome, René has the chutzpa to show a lesbian film, ‘Tortilleras,’ at a school screening.”—Lambda Book Report (Washington), Vol. 3, Issue 5, July, page 15>
The following set of quotes refer to men, except for the 2000 quote which refers to land. The 1914 quote contains a variation with ‘broad’ substituted for ‘dark:
<1867 “The following advertisement appeared in the Otago Daily Times [[New Zealand]]: —Wanted—A young lady of moderate stature, is open to engagement, should an eligible partner offer. . . .She can dance, sing, and understands the culinary arts to perfection; is gentle of temper, forbearing and forgiving; would be loving and affectionate, if her husband was not addicted to drinking or gambling; . . . He must be tall, dark, and handsome, with straight black hair, and black eyes; . . . Address O[tago]., office of this paper.—N.B. References with carte de visite [[small photograph popular in Europe in the 19th century]] required.”—Nelson Evening Mail (New Zealand), 30 November, page 2>

<1870 “‘Bravissimi!’ exclaimed one of them—a tall, dark, and handsome man of about fifty years old, with bright black eyes.”—The Living Age, Vol. 105, Issue 1354, 14 May, page 422>

<1885 “. . . Mabel, as she stood up pink with confusion, recognized the Crown Prince in the tall, dark, and handsome man who had alighted, hat in hand . . .”—Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 71, Issue 422, July, page 227>

<1888 “Mr. Fernando Yznaga, a tall, dark, and handsome Cuban youth, soon became also a friend of the Misses Smith [[two sisters]].”—New York Times, 22 July, page 5>

<1890 “Green is about 36 years old, tall, dark, and handsome. He is a native of Georgia.”— Los Angeles Times, 13 February, page 1>

<1900 “One day the Spanish governor of Mindanano [[island in the Philippines]] . . . called on the Sultan at Calagnanan, attended by soldiers of his army. One was a bugler—tall, dark, and handsome.”—Washington Post, 29 April, page 24>

<1906 “He was tall—and dark—and handsome.”—Undertow by R. E. Knowles, xi. page 135> [[earliest OED quote]]

<1914 “The majority of the Hindus [[trying to emigrate to Canada]] have served in the British army and they are a tall, broad and handsome lot.”—Poverty Bay Herald (Gisborne, New Zealand, 29 June, page 7>

<1940 “One Squadron Leader tells of filling an ‘order’ for ‘three tall, dark and handsomes to go dancing.’”—Chatelaine, December, page 55/3>

<1958 “Tall, dark and handsome—the romantic cliché repeated itself in my head.”—Nine Coaches Waiting by M. Stewart, vii. page 93>

<1965 “It was Cary Grant that Mae West was talking about when she launched the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’ in ‘She Done Him Wrong’ (1933).”—Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1966) by Tom Wolfe, ix. page 178>

<1978 “If she felt like leaning on his shoulder it was certainly not because he was tall, dark and handsome.”—Life Cycle by H. Carmichael, v. page 64>

<1993 “ ‘IS IT POSSIBLE TO APPEAR TALL, DARK AND HANDSOME EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT?’ the ad asks, and the answer is, implicitly, yes. Because of the pheromones. They blind women to your true repulsiveness. It is not how you look that matters, it's how you smell.”—Washington Post, 17 December> [[the men’s cologne contains pheromones – chemical substance released by an animal that serves to influence the behavior of other members of the same species.]]

<2000 (article title) “Tall, Dark, and Handsome – Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison has always been a showstopper—now it’s a national park”—Sunset (magazine), Vol. 204, Issue. 6, page 22>

<2004 “A good conversationalist who's funny and easygoing would be nice, but someone tall, dark and handsome wouldn't hurt either.”—The Evening Standard (London), 29 January>

<2009 WHAT makes a woman want to sleep with a man? Is it true that a guy can laugh a woman into bed? Does he need to be tall, dark and handsome to stand any chance at all? Today, in the second extract from the new book Why Women Have Sex, by psychologists Cindy Meston and David Buss, we reveal the features that make a man appeal to a woman, and why, are far more fascinating and complex than you could imagine...”—Daily Mail (London), 23 September> [[A guy who knows some word and phrase origins knocks them out every time!]]
(quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

Ken – December 3, 2009

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by hsargent » Tue Dec 08, 2009 5:37 am

I am very surprised at your references which describe a female as tall, dark, and handsome. I'm not questioning your work. I just have never thought of a beautiful woman as handsome!
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:25 am

Etymonline.com has the following entry for 'handsome':

c.1400, handsom "easy to handle, ready at hand," from hand (n.) + -some. Sense extended to "fair size, considerable" (1577), then "having fine form, good-looking" (1590). Meaning "generous" (in handsome reward, etc.) first recorded 1690.

I think you will more often find it used about an attractive, mature woman with poise than a youngster.
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Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Dec 08, 2009 9:29 pm

Harry and Erik, People do usually refer to a man being ‘handsome’ and a woman being ‘beautiful.’ And in my experience I have only occasionally heard a woman referred to as handsome (probably more common in earlier times – see tall-dark-and handsome quotes above and handsome quotes below).

Here’s what the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY listed under the relevant meaning along with their quotes referring to women:

6a) HANDSOME adjective: Having a fine form or figure (usually in conjunction with full size or stateliness); ‘beautiful with dignity’ (J.) ‘fine’. (The prevailing current sense.) [[Anyone know what the (‘J.’) refers to? – not listed in OED’s abbreviation list]]
<1622 “Who could dote on thing so common As meer outward handsome Woman?”—Faire Virtue, the Mistresse of Philarete (1633) in Works, page 719>

<1717 “She appeared to me handsomer than before.”—Letter to C’tess Mar, by Lady M. W. Montagu, 10 March>

<1855 “She is very pretty, but not so extraordinarily handsome.”—Rose & Ring by Thackeray, xvii>
A particular usage I have heard over the years in reference to a girl or young woman is “handsome lass,” which was probably born in Ireland or Scotland, but which has moved on to become an English set phrase. A Google search produced ~ 5,000 (not a huge number) of hits on this one at my space-time coordinates. About a quarter of those referred to a line in Silas Marner and a W. C. Fields witticism (see first two quotes below):
<1861 “. . . that’s the sister o’ the Mr. Osgood as now is, and a fine handsome lass she was . . .”— Silas Marner by George Eliot, page 71>

<1940 “Ah yes, she's a fine figure of a woman, isn't she? A handsome lass if there ever was one--and exceptionally well-preserved too.--W.C. Fields> [[Reportedly said of Mae West on the set of the movie My Little Chickadee]]

<1975 “. . . a long-stemmed and quite handsome lass named Katie, who plays the guitar . . .”—Los Angeles Times, 17 January, page F20>

<1998 (play review) “Its early scenes follow the courtship of Shanda . . . , a new girl in town, by Amanda . . . , a handsome lass also loved by the defiantly roughneck Melinda”—New York Times, 6 March>

<2004 “Teresa Lappin, a bright and handsome lass from Ireland, was on the same boat and fell in love with the stalwart, keen-eyed Captain Edward Eldridge.”—Bellingham Herald (Washington), 29 March>

<2008 “Miss Scotland’s dressed to kilt: . . .The MacLeod colors are very nice and she is a handsome lass to show them off.”—The Scotsman (Edinburgh), 28 March>

<2009 (movie review) “Though of course a handsome lass [[uptight character in movie The Ugly Truth]], her controlling personality has tended to scare the chaps off, and she is currently unhappily single.”—The Irish Independent (Dublin), 8 July>
(quotes from archived sources)

Ken – December 7, 2009

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Dec 08, 2009 11:29 pm

There's a definition for 'handsome woman' at Urbandictionary that pretty much covers my understanding of how the term would usually be used:
A woman with the kind of refined beauty and attractiveness that requires poise, dignity, and strength of mind and character, things that often come with age; not merely sex-appeal. Usually applied to a woman who is also very well-groomed and from an upper class background.

This phrase is very dated and rarely used in today's English. Those who don't understand the term could almost be insulted by the word "handsome" being applied to a woman, mistakenly thinking you're saying she is masculine.

"Though she had lost long ago her virginal loveliness, she had ripened into a handsome and fruitful looking woman." - Ellen Glasgow
FWIW, the expression garnered 224,000 Google hits today.
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Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Dec 09, 2009 8:06 am

Erik, Thanks for your input and that extremely coherent (for Urban Dictionary) definition, confirming your take on a meaning of ‘handsome woman.’ The 224,000 HANDSOME WOMAN Google hits (I also found there were 124,000 handsome women hits) dwarf my 5000 handsome lass hits, indicating the HANDSOME is used far more with respect to women than I had imagined and more than the author of the Urban Dictionary definition had imagined when he said, “This phrase is very dated and rarely used in today's English.”

In sifting through a goodly number of the hits, I would have to agree that the more literate examples I found agreed mostly, but not exclusively, with your understanding (“more often find it used about an attractive, mature woman with poise than a youngster.”

It was interesting as I looked through Google News hits (which are more literate then your average internet fare) to note the numbers of HANDSOME WOMAN hits over the years. Its heyday was in the late 1800s with its all-time, decade record being in the 1890s. The numbers dwindled in the mid-20th century, but since then there seems to have been a steady resurgence:

HANDSOME WOMAN Google News hits by decade:

1890s: 844

1910s: 301

1930s: 115

1950s: 120

1970s: 237

1990s: 514

2000s: 698

Here are some recent Google News hits which are fairly typical of what I found and which seem to be in agreement (or at least not in disagreement) with the definition you have suggested:
<1999 “Anyway, Gail a handsome woman of 56, a retired judge and lawyer, blessed with intellect and charm . . .”—Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), 19 July>

<2001 “Smith is a strikingly handsome woman of 70 years. She wore a navy blue pantsuit and French blue blouse with silver accessories: a brooch, a necklace, . . .“—Naperville Sun (Illinois), 28 February>

<2003 “She was a handsome woman of 45 and would remain so for many years.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Georgia), 11 May> [[an often-quoted quote on middle age by Anita Brookner (1928- ), English novelist and art historian]]

<2005 “Rose is a handsome woman, eyes and skin the color of walnut. She has short silver hair, silver earrings, a silver necklace, this black crepe outfit . . .”—Sacramento Bee (California), 25 June>

<2007 “You could purchase organic eggs from a farmer who knew the chicken, or stock up on tomatoes and zucchini from Martha Fowler, a handsome woman with a face Norman Rockwell would have loved. Her family has brought produce to the market since it opened in 1873.”—Washington Post, 1 May>

<2009 “She’s [[83-year-old actress Angela Lansbury]], also a very handsome woman and still has the wide forehead, deep, wide-set eyes and cupid’s bow mouth of a movie star from the studio era.”—New York Times, 13 May>
Ken – December 8, 2009


Post by PhilHunt » Tue Mar 02, 2010 12:31 pm

While reading Charles Dickens the other day, I came across several examples of the term 'handsome woman'. I'm familiar with the use of handsome to describe an attractive man, but I'm less familiar with its use for a woman.

When I looked in the dictionary I found this reference, with regards to people:
1. having an attractive, well-proportioned, and imposing appearance suggestive of health and strength; good-looking: a handsome man; a handsome woman.
It was also interesting to see in the etymology dictionary the evolution of the word.
c.1400, handsom "easy to handle, ready at hand," from hand (n.) + -some. Sense extended to "fair size, considerable" (1577), then "having fine form, good-looking" (1590). Meaning "generous" (in handsome reward, etc.) first recorded 1690.
The idea of a man or a woman being 'easy to handle' brings a smile to my face.

However, my question is; does anyone really use handsome to describe women these days, or has it completely fallen out of use?

[Forum ed.: Phil, I have merged your posting titled 'Handsome' with this recent discussion - EK, 2 March 2010]
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Mar 02, 2010 3:13 pm

I do hear handsome used to describe a woman from time to time, and in fact I do use it myself. Be it right or wrong, I tend to think of a handsome woman as being a bit regal looking.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by trolley » Tue Mar 02, 2010 4:31 pm

Some women cost a handsome sum.

Re: tall, dark, and handsome

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sat Mar 06, 2010 3:28 am

.. I would never call a young woman handsome .. for me it encompasses more than just looks .. it carries the whole woman .. her presentation, her position, her bearing, her sense of place .. it is a term that i use but not often as for me there are few women who I feel desreve the accolade ..

WoZ waiting waiting waiting .....
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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