If you can answer this, then you aren't just another...
November 3, 2007 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "not just another pretty face"?

I've tried searching online, but all I get are sites that use the phrase. I added search terms such as "origin", "source", "history", etc. to no avail. I also tried a couple of sites devoted to English language cliches. Help? Suggestion for search terms or non-online sources?
posted by girlpublisher to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
google book search suggests it goes back to at least 1883 but the book in question doesnt seem to support the "search within this book" feature.
posted by juv3nal at 9:11 PM on November 3, 2007

I had always thought of it as "not just a pretty face".
implying there is more to the person than their looks.

One may be an evolution of the other, so it might be wise to search for the origin of both phrases.
posted by Iananan at 5:40 AM on November 4, 2007

Best answer: Most of the phrase and idiom dictionaries seem to agree it rose to popularity in the 1950s. (You can use an * to search both variants of the phrase.) The OED offers:
b. to be just a pretty face and variants: to have no qualities other than attractiveness, esp. with connotations of low intelligence; usually in negative contexts. Also: to be more than (just) a pretty face: to have qualities other than mere attractiveness, esp. intelligence. Often without the implication that the person referred to is particularly attractive.

1873 Harper's Mag. July 253/2, I have heard that she is a pretty face, and nothing more. 1958 Times 30 May 8/6 (headline) 'Primrose' wins again at the Bath and West. 'Not just a pretty face'.
Interestingly enough, in its first appearance in The Times (London), it's already written in quotes. (Primrose, apparently, was a prize-winning sheep.)
posted by steef at 8:59 AM on November 4, 2007

google book search suggests it goes back to at least 1883

No, you've misread the Google Books entry (which isn't hard to do, since Google Books is incredibly sucky). What you see is:
Picturesque Expressions: a thematic dictionary - Page 49
by Hinsinger, Walter W, LaRoche, Nancy, Urdang, Laurence - Art - 1985
(The Nineteenth Century, May 1883) 10. not just another pretty face This expression,
which came into greater prominence as a favorite catchphrase of the ...
The important date here is 1985, the date of the book. The 1883 date is part of the identifying information for the previous entry, whatever that was. In the book itself (if Google would do us the favor of letting us see it) there would be a paragraph break before:

10. not just another pretty face This expression,
which came into greater prominence as a favorite catchphrase of the ..

By googling "prominence as a favorite catchphrase of the," I got a further continuation: "... women's liberation
movement, is a warning or putdown directed at men who view women merely..."

Note that if you use Advanced Search you can specify a date range, but this won't help when it comes to periodicals, for which Google Books really sucks, because they treat the first year the periodical was issued as the date of every issue. So if you search on the phrase "just another pretty face" with the range "date:1800-1950," you get four hits that look like they come from 1891, 1932, 1945, and 1948—but they're all periodicals, and the actual dates of the issues with the phrase are much later.
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on November 4, 2007

Best answer: There's an interesting angle here in that all of the older usages I've found are essentially of the form her pretty face was all she had, whereas the modern gloss is closer to she was merely a pretty face -- that is, the phrase has undergone a bit of synecdoche. This may be slightly related to the interwar prominence of the Hollywood term "face" (as in Norma Desmond's fictional phrase, "We didn't need words -- we had faces then.")

Also, before 1900 the phrase is clearly limited to women trying to attract a husband (and particularly without a personality, backbone, or dowry). After 1950 the phrase is pretty clearly limited to career advancement and eventually becomes gender-neutral.

The earliest citations of the former meaning I could find were a 1796 novel:
"Lord Fitz-Vernon will never consent to the marriage of his heir with a girl whom nobody knows, and who has nothing, I suppose, but a pretty face to recommend her."
and a 1770 travelogue:
It was in London where I first knew this Polly, a pretty and modest girl. Batiste left my service to follow her to Portugal, where she went to live with an old aunt who was to bequeath her all she had, and that all was no inconsiderable fortune for a girl who had nothing but a pretty face and no inclination to hire it.

I'm not sure exactly what sparked the phrase to resurface in the 1950s, but it clearly seems to have an origin in marriage rituals. Especially in the 18th century uses of "a pretty face" alone, there's always an air of disdain for a young man who would throw away family and class preferences for that sake (and it's always about him and not her). In the 19th century it becomes more a cross to bear for a woman without family or money.
posted by dhartung at 2:52 PM on November 4, 2007

« Older What can I expect from my kitten's hospitalization...   |   How do you explain divorce to an eight-year-old? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.