You win some, you lose some. But if you’re winsome, how can you lose?
Winsome doesn’t mean you tend to win things. Well, OK, hearts, agreement, devotion, prizes for the best smile, those sorts of winning ways, sure. But it’s not quite like meddlesome or quarrelsome. The win that it’s for is not the win of competition – from an old Germanic verb meaning ‘labour, exert, contend, fight, gain’ – but the otherwise-disused win of joy and delight, from Old English wyn (or wynn), related to wish and more distantly to wine (but if you’re winsome and you wish for wine, you will surely win some). So winsome means ‘delightful, agreeable’ and refers most often to manners, mannerisms, or appearance.
I’m sure we all know someone who is exceptionally sweet without seeming fake – someone you like as soon as you meet them, and keep on liking thereafter. In the world of figure skating, I’m told Jason Brown (a current leading men’s single skater from the US) is such a person, and he certainly has a winsome smile. In the world of words, Carol Fisher Saller (of the Chicago Manual of Style and Subversive Copy Editor) may as well have her picture next to winsome in the dictionary. But in my own world, my wife (Aina) is the winner, and then some. Herewith I present evidence:
Obviously all you see from that is her smile when in a state of bliss, as for example when she is holding a bowl of sauerkraut in a Hofbräuhaus. But I can assure you that she has delightfully winning ways. The set of all the people who like both me and her is the set of all the people who like me (there may be a few, I’m not sure) and have even so much as met her. She gets me invited to social occasions just because I come with the set. (Ironically, she is more introverted than I am, and often has to be dragged to events.)
It’s unsurprising that smile is the word most often described by winsome. But other things can be winsome too. A person can have a winsome manner, for instance, or a winsome laugh. The term is sometimes used just to mean ‘good looking in an unthreatening way’. Which describes quite a lot of the editors I recently finished conferencing with in St. Petersburg, Florida. Relaxed, happy, cheery, non-threatening – I mean, yeah, that’s pretty usual for people at a collegial conference in a warm place. But these ones have the edge of both being winsome and knowing it. Not knowing that they’re winsome – knowing the word winsome and how to use it.