Language: Not cute

One of my profs forbade the use of "nice" in a written assignment unless one was describing a piece of fish. I dislike "nice" less than "cute", when used without discernment.

There are two reasons why I wish the adjective were used less.

First, there is the matter of accuracy when describing attire. One dictionary definition is, "pretty in a dainty or delicate way; adorable, sweet, quaint; whimsical, charming." (A second meaning, more often used in British English, is "trying to be clever".)

A friend called this dress, worn by the Duchess of Sussex, "cute". Her ecru Givenchy does not display the characteristics of cute. In fact, it's far from it. (And don't call the Queen "cute", either; I'm getting to that.)

Neither is cute

Another acquaintance used the term when trying on a classic navy peacoat. Perhaps we could build more vocabulary and stop using the term for everything we like.

Was the habit imprinted in adolescence, when we called boys and clothes "cute" with equal passion? My teen years were one big Cute-a-Thon.

"Cute" applied to clothing summons images of sweetness (bows and ruffles, puff sleeves, ditsy florals), whimsy (prints of ice cream cones, cartoon animals), and other jeune-fille effects.

Kawaii t-shirt
Cute style is naive. A prime example is the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, a deliberately childlike look originally adopted by 15 to 18-year-old girls. I would rather wear a gorilla suit.

I can accept "cute" to describe a pair of jeans because it is code for "makes your butt look good."

The second reason I'm fed up with it: When "cute" is applied to an adult woman, it has an infantalizing effect. Petite women are targets for the label, but I've never heard them contentedly self-identify with this term past their mid-20s. It's hard to assume power in any realm of adult life when you are described as "cute".

Elder women are especially prone to being called "cute", as in "Oh, your gran is so cute!" Back to Queen Elizabeth: I wouldn't say she is cute but will concede she looks sprightly ("energetic and in good health").

The young of a species (e.g., babies, kittens, puppies and my favourite, owlets) are universally thought to be cute, and that cuteness releases dopamine in the observer's brain. We want to hug, cuddle, even pinch or squeeze (known as "cute aggression") the adorable little creature. There is an evolutionary protective advantage to being cute at that vulnerable stage of life.

Why the "cute" label rolls around at the other end of life may have to do with perceived helplessness and frailty. It is also inherently sexist. I have rarely heard a male elder referred to as a "cute little old man", and certainly not within earshot of the subject.

So yeah, I'm not cute. I am, however, a forthright grownup and this ubiquitous term, applied to everything from a coat to a Queen, riles me more than hearing another overused compliment, "genius".

I told the friend who called the Duchess's dress "cute" that "cute" was a poodle skirt. She laughed and said, "Well, I like poodle skirts, too!"


Laura J said…
Oh my! Another spot on post. Cute is definitely a lazy word—English has tons of words assimilated from all over that we can choose from. And don’t get me started on gender issues. Lol. In Toronto I was challenged by seeing young women in full “cute” uniform. I wanted to stare and figure out exactly how many bows were on that skirt—truly works of art and artifice. WE are definitely not cute.
Venasque said…
I'm with you, particularly in regard to older women. For some reason once you reach a certain age, the world is blinded with wonder that you can dress yourself, never mind walk down the street unaided. For this reason I never tell my age and fortunately don't look it.

Another over-used word is hero. Now everyone's a hero including the people in the recent London Bridge attack. No question they showed both bravery and courage, good qualities to have in such a situation. But true heroism involves more than that and is a rare thing.
Duchesse said…
Laura J: The effect you describe takes the outfit to the realm of costume. A subset of women enjoy costumes, and youth is the time to wear the wild or extreme stuff and receive more acceptance. Things change once you have to show up to work!

Venasque: I agree about "hero", though I see it mostly in print. Another word I believe is overused and misapplied is "trauma". Someone recently described not getting into a prestigious school as "trauma".

I'm the opposite of you; I'll tell anyone my age, because I am working for some social changes that affect the aged and I am one of that cohort. When I hear, "Oh, you don't look 71!" I hear the unwitting ageism behind that, as they hasten to assure me that I am still OK showing my face in public. I want to reply, "Well, what if I did?" and it will just take the right moment should I hear that again.
LauraH said…
Agree. A friend sometimes tells me I'm so cute...definitely an age thing, and yes, it is annoying in exactly the way you describe.
Oh I agree with this so much. As a late 50s extremely short woman the defaults seem to be cute or invisible. I want neither. I'll add an extreme dislike for being referred to as a"girl". Let's stop with all the belittling - always couched as if they are being kind. Yeah nope.
Venasque said…
Another one is "she looks so good for" (insert number here), as though once a woman reaches a certain age people need to avert their eyes. Or "she was so attractive when she was young". And now she is what? Hideous?

All young people are attractive, even beautiful. Their lithe, young bodies and luminous skin are gorgeous in and of themselves, never mind other physical attributes. But an aging face can be beautiful in a different way, and if not beautiful, interesting, in a way a young face cannot. The bone structure is still there, enhanced by the joys and sorrows of life. All it takes to see it, is to look.
I certainly get "cuted", but I did when I was younger too, though I've never dressed in a "cute" fashion. Do other people get online ads for horrific over-decorated "cute" clothing which I believe is supposed to appeal to women of a certain age and makes me want to run screaming?

I tend to avoid stating my exact age on the net for the same reason I don't indicate my address or phone number unless absolutely necessary for official purposes. No problem among people I know, unless they are blabbermouths.

I think I can call Livia cute, though I'd say mignonne (the French is more precise and less overused). But she's a cat.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Maybe send her a link to this post? It is not usually a deliberate thing.

painting with fire: You still get "girl"?! Swat 'em with your paintbrush! I still refer to my "girlfriends" but it is not in the same register.

Venasque: Oh yes, and for me, it is the smarmy and ageist "x years young."
Maria said…
Thank you for introducing me to the term “cute aggression”. It perfectly describes the actions of a family friend from long ago who would energetically tickle and pinch the cheeks of babies and children (I was as an older child so I was mostly spared). She was otherwise delightful and funny but I found that particular behaviour unsettling and seeing it as aggressive allows me to understand why I was unsettled by it. With regard to elders, my young adult daughter often describes men in their 70s and over as cute, but not too their faces. She has a genuine regard for older people of both sexes. I think this may be because she lost all her grandparents by the age of 10. She was particularly close to my dad and I know from other things she says that when she uses the term she means that she likes the person, enjoys their company and goes out of her way to be helpful to them, for example when she encounters older customers through her job. I never met any of my grandparents and have never regarded elders as cute, which is perhaps a little unsettling now that I’m in my 60s and dealing with some of the more challenging aspects of ageing :).
s. said…
I fully agree that the dress the Duchess of Sussex is wearing there is a far cry from "cute." I find it elegant, trim, pretty and appropriate. However, it does seem that Meghan -- and many other grown women -- do sometimes resort to "cute" and the results can be endearing... or not.
s. said…
*sorry - didn't know how else to link to a few photos of the Duchess of Sussex sticking out her tongue. Please do replace with a less unwieldy link, if you can/ you'd like. Ci-mer.
Duchesse said…
s.: She is not alone:

Maria: If your young adult daughter has “genuine regard” for older people, perhaps it is time to share the idea that calling them “cute”, (whether to their faces or not), does not convey that. Not speaking of your daughter here, but I have also heard young adults use “ cute” as a mild eye-roll, when referring to an elder who mistakenly mangles a name or term: “Oh, your grandma thinks it’s ‘Justin Beeper’, she’s so cute.”
Beth said…
Editor Beth is applauding. I've rarely been called "cute" and don't see it as a compliment. What I especially like about this post is its point about lazy language. English and French are both rich languages, full of adjectives and verbs that paint detailed pictures. Let's use them!
Duchesse said…
Beth: I pulled a few of my punches. I feel the same about "sweet" applied to everything a woman I shppped with called every single thing in a store (for adults.)
Frances said…
Wow! As A petite petite woman in her late sixties,this post really resonates!
Darla said…
You missed "Honey". Maybe that deserves a whole post. Maybe it is regional. No doubt that it is irritating though.
Jane in London said…
Oh dear, is it just me who thought that outfit made the Duchess of Sussex look like a dental nurse, then?

Here in Britain, we don't use "cute" as much as you do across the pond. It tends to be more limited to the baby animal context or, (for young(er) people) to indicate that someone is personally attractive.

The adjective "sweet" often carries with it a hint of sarcasm or condescension here, particularly when applied to an item of adults' clothing, and so needs to be deployed with great care...

And "dear". An "old dear"... Unless in reference to a cervid.
Hummingbird5 said…
I am both old and "petite" (another word I don't like; it implies there's something wrong with "short"). While I don't love it, I understand the people who sometimes call me cute. At 5'1" I certainly don't look anything like the stately, elegant elder models I see in fashion advertising. Believe me, I KNOW it feels diminishing to be referred to this way, but I think people are simply at a loss.
Duchesse said…
Darla, and lagatta, and Hummingbird5: I did not so much miss the patronizing, infantilizing, diminishing or overly- familiar terms of address as much as chiose to emphasize the ubiquity of “cute”. Writers sometimes choose a specific focus. I have in the past written about terms of address and share your dislike, yet I do not mind being called “ hon” by a folksy, friendly waitress when I visit my home town.
In some regions, even young men get called hon. Not a problem.

Hummingbird, Duchesse and I live in a French-speaking place and petite is normal. It is the poor men who don't have a positive word for short. And remember, the Queen is about our height. Don't know your age and it is absolutely none of our business, but the Queen has two children considerably older than me, and I'm closest in age to that disgusting son (I'm older than him).
Pastel River said…
Not on topic, but did you see Emma Stone's engagement ring with a pearl?
Bunny said…
As a five foot nothing petite I fought my entire life the look and description of petite. It is a conscious choice, in my opinion. To this day you will not ever catch me in ditsy prints, peter pan collars, pockets and other such ilk. I like and deliberately wore tailored and more sophisticated clothing in my past career and to this day that is my comfort zone. I did accept willingly the compliments of "you look so young" which I think really had to do with my small size and hair and makeup but no cute!
Duchesse said…
Pastel River: Beautiful ring. Though any stone (or metal) can be used as an engagement ring, generally women want to wear them often, if not daily. Jewellers therefore advise the best choice are the most durable gems, so pearls are not often chosen. However, if Stone's pearl becomes damaged, it is certainly replaceable.
Duchesse said…
Bunny: A stroll through petite departments shows both tailored and more 'girly' styles, these days—but I remember, shopping with my aunt (under 5 ft.), how there once were many mroe frills, florals and fussy details in that section. She was so frustrated that she would sew her own tailored suits.

The posts with the most