Cute is a term that has undergone a significant historical alteration in its meaning. The origin of the word cute is undeniable: it is a contraction of acute (and was once spelt ‘cute’). Since Shakespeare’s day, acute has meant “intelligent, smart,” among other things, but it has never been defined as “beautiful or pretty.” The abbreviation cute first appears in the early 18th century, but it is not until a century later that word takes on its characteristic modern meaning; youngsters were still being called adorable as a tribute to their intellect even until 1900.
Cuteness is a subjective phrase that describes a form of appeal that is frequently connected with youth and looks, as well as a scientific idea and analytical model in ethology that was initially established by Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz established the concept of infant schema (Kindchenschema), a combination of facial and physical traits that make a creature appear “cute” and activate (“release”) the desire to care for it in others. Cuteness can be used to both individuals and objects that are considered appealing or charming.
Cute’s past suggests leniency. It was a shorter form of acute, an adjective that meant “shrewd,” “sharp,” or “intelligent” when it first appeared in English in 1731. It even had its own apostrophe at the start—‘cute—to indicate that it had been clipped. Whether all abbreviations are charming, as in “heartwarmingly diminutive,” is a subject best left to minds cuter, as in “more cunning,” than mine. In Victorian England, a “cute comment” was a witty remark. In Dickens’ 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge, the “cute man” was the same. And so was a cute girl. The Manchester Evening Mail published an article in 1882 defending the average American young woman as being “as cute as the macho Yankee,” which implied she was equally smart and lively.
The more known “attractive,” “pretty,” or “charming” derivation of the adjective can be credited to American schoolchildren. This conflation of physical and mental appreciation—from the shapeliness or comeliness of a line of thought to the elegant cut on a garment—led my acquaintance, who wished to appreciate an argument for its intellectual qualities, to dismiss it as superficial and frivolous. Cute was used to describe small socks, a nice, orderly study room, the narrow and beautiful vasculature of old city streets, and “a French accent… reminiscent of the naughty-naughty twitterings of a Parisian miss on the English musical comedy stage” once its slang meaning caught on in the mid-1830s. Maybe the same vehicle that transports the adjective “clever” between ideas and clothing also aided cute’s transition from an intellectual to an aesthetic value system.
But another transition is taking place in those early examples—the socks, the lanes, the young Parisian. Cute’s cleverness or “just-so”-ness is reflected in the magnitude of the noun being modified. Aldous Huxley, for example, described a “tiny kid… looking almost indecently cute in his claret-colored doublet and starched ruff” in 1941.* I’m reminded of how Marianne Moore’s lyrical ideal—”neatness of finish”—was sometimes misinterpreted as a reflection of her ambitions’ humility. Being clean and proper seems to transfer into being small: there’s a sense of enclosure and ease of comprehension.