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shameless pleading

Pretty

Would you say “fairly pretty” is pretty fair?

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell us how the word “pretty” came to mean “rather”? I’ve been making jokes about something being “pretty ugly” for years, but can’t quite picture how something could mean both “nice-looking” and “fairly.” I’ve even thought maybe the word “fair” is a clue, since it can mean nice-looking (at least a few centuries ago it could), and “rather,” as in “fairly soon.” But I still can’t quite make the slide into “pretty” meaning “rather”! Any help you can offer would be appreciated! — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY

That’s a good question. At least I think it is. I can’t be certain because halfway through reading it I started to feel dizzy (right around your first mention of “fair”), and now my eyes won’t focus. Sometimes I think I’d really be better off writing an advice column for pet owners.

OK, onward. It’s a tribute to the flexibility of the English language that we can use the word “pretty” to mean both “attractive” and “fairly” or “moderately” in the same sentence (“It’s a pretty little house, but its foundation has pretty big problems”) without incurring a major mental meltdown. But given a few centuries of linguistic evolution and our ability to judge the meaning of words by their context, this kind of variation in usage is actually not uncommon.

That’s not to say that “pretty” hasn’t taken some sharp turns in its evolution. It first appeared in Old English as “praettig,” meaning “cunning or crafty,” based on “praett,” meaning “trick.” It soon, in the 1400s, acquired the somewhat less shifty meanings of “clever, skillful and able,” which led to its use meaning “elegantly made or done; ingenious and artful.” Applied to a person, especially a woman or child, “pretty” meant “attractive in appearance,” and in relation to a thing or place, “aesthetically pleasing.” Thus by the 15th century “pretty” as an adjective had settled into its primary modern meaning. But it’s worth noting that even back then there was an implicit distinction in usage between “pretty” and “beautiful,” and “pretty” was often used in a patronizing or even depreciative sense, especially in the form “pretty little,” still very much in use today (“We don’t need to bother our pretty little heads about it,” 1996). (As one dictionary commented in 1909, “Pretty is somewhat of a condescending term; we grant it: beauty is imperious, and commands our acknowledgment.”) By the 16th century, “pretty” was commonly used in an ironic sense to mean “difficult, unwelcome, awkward” (“We drank hard, and returned to our employers in a pretty pickle,” 1809).

The use of “pretty” as an adverb meaning “fairly” or “moderately” also arose in the 16th century. This “so-so” sense was probably an outgrowth of that patronizing use of “pretty” to mean “somewhat attractive” in contrast to “beautiful.” Something that is “pretty good” is thus sufficient, but never “awesomely” or “stunningly” good.

Your hunch that the history of “fair” might be a similar case is right on the money. First appearing in Old English with the meaning “beautiful,” “fair” went on to mean, among other things, “free from bias” (as in “fair trial”) and “free of defect” (“fair complexion”). Eventually “fair” acquired the modern lukewarm senses of “moderate” (“a fair chance of success”) and “tolerable” and, as an adverb, “somewhat,” “passably” and “moderately.”

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