Have you ever remarked to a friend on a person’s attractiveness or an object’s loveliness and had your comment met with the expression beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Did you know what your friend meant—whether they agreed or disagreed with your assessment? Let’s explore the definition, as well as origins, of this common proverbial and idiomatic saying.
What Does Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder Mean?
Although this phrase is considered an idiom, and typically idioms have figurative meanings that are difficult to figure out just by looking at the words that comprise them, we can look to the meanings of the individual words here to determine the definition of this expression.
If you’re not familiar with the word beholder, let’s start there. Behold is another way of saying “to see.” Thus, a beholder is a person who sees, who observes or gazes upon something or someone. The expression beauty is in the eye of the beholder is indicating that the beholder’s eyes, that gaze upon someone or something, decide if what they see is beautiful or not.
Taken one step further to land on the full meaning intended when you hear or read the phrase today, its words are saying that not everyone has the same idea of beauty; that different people will have different ideas and opinions about what is attractive or otherwise pleasing. What one person finds beautiful, another may find ugly. It’s important to note that the saying doesn’t have to just apply to physical beauty, but can also apply to any judgement about someone’s or something’s appeal or desirability. For example, it can be used to indicate that what one person finds interesting, another person finds boring. Or, that what someone perceives as special and unique, another person thinks is ordinary and common.
In other words, the saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder is used to express that beauty, or appeal in general, is subjective not objective (which gets at the origins of this phrase; keep reading). You may also see or hear the phrase as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. This variation has the same meaning and can be used in the exact same way.
Here are some example sentences using the phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder:
- When I asked my sister if she liked my newly renovated living room, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Mid-century modern isn’t her style.
- On our field trip to the museum, my classmates couldn’t stop talking about this one particular painting, but I didn’t like it all; I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
- My mom took me to see her favorite play, but I found it so boring I fell asleep! You know what they say: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
- I loved the choreography of our local company’s recent ballet, but my husband said it seemed too simple and that he couldn’t understand what I saw in it. We’re often disagreeing, and I seem to always have to remind him that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The Origins of This Common Saying
The debate over whether beauty is subjective or objective has been argued since at least the 3rd century BC, with subjective referring to a decision based on personal feelings and opinions and objective being the opposite, a decision made not by considering one’s individual point of view but instead considering the available facts. Indeed, the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle thought beauty something that could be measured objectively, in terms of symmetry, proportion, and balance. Those in the Epicurean, Skeptic, and Stoic schools thought of beauty as both objective and subjective.
Although the expression doesn’t appear to have been used then exactly as it is now, the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC, is credited with saying the similar saying everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.
Other very similar versions have been used throughout history. For example, we see a form in this passage from William Shakespeare’s 1588 comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost:
Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues
And in 1741, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Beauty, like supreme dominion/Is but supported by opinion.” Around the same time, in 1742, essayist David Hume wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
But the earliest citation of the expression in its current form appears in 1878, in the book Molly Bawn by Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. For this reason, she is widely credited with coining the proverb and idiom.
Understanding Proverbs and Idioms
An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These phrases usually have a figurative rather than literal meaning. However, this expression differs slightly from other idioms in this way. Of course, it doesn’t literally mean that beauty is physically contained within the eyes of the beholder, but you are able to deduce the figurative meaning relatively easily by looking at the literal meanings of the individual words it contains.
Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
A proverb is a short, common phrase or expression that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage and aphorism. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Actions speak louder than words.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Related Phrases and Expressions
There are several sayings that express similar sentiments to beauty is in the eye of the beholder or are otherwise related to this expression in terms of content. For example, there’s the idiom beauty is only skin deep, which means that outside beauty doesn’t equate to inside beauty; that just because someone is physically beautiful doesn’t mean they’ll have a good personality or good character. There’s also the expression one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, which means that what one person sees as worthless might be considered highly valuable to someone else.
The proverb and idiom beauty is in the eye of the beholder means that different people can have a different perception of beauty: What one person finds physically attractive, or interesting or appealing in some other way, another person may find ugly, or boring or uninteresting. The expression takes a definitive side in the age-old debate over whether or not beauty is objective or subjective, concluding that it’s subjective, or based on an individual’s personal opinions and feelings and not on hard facts.