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Is a "polite compliment" necessarily a redundant statement when used in a group of people as opposed to a one-to-one situation?

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This seems to me a strange question. Aren't all compliments polite remarks (unless they're the kind of vulgar remarks made commonplace by Sex in the City) intended to make the listener feel good? Isn't an audience of one sufficient to require the same level of politesse as an audience of 10? I'm more inclined to judge a compliment as either sincere or flattering. – user21497 Feb 3 '13 at 5:31
How about an example? – coleopterist Feb 3 '13 at 11:03
How is 'polite compliment' different when used in a group of people as opposed to with a single person? – Mitch Feb 3 '13 at 16:52

I disagree with the other answers. A polite compliment is one that is both flattering and delicately phrased. For example, the following is in essence a compliment, but is not in any way polite:

Wow, check out the rack on that girl!

The fictitious speaker is trying to express an aesthetic admiration for the particularly beautiful breasts sported by a woman he is looking at. It is an expression of a positive judgement of her physical appearance and is, therefore, a compliment.

However, in our society it is not considered very polite to compliment the appearance of the sexual parts of the human body. Even if it were, using as vulgar a term as rack (which is the least vulgar I could come up with in this context) is definitely not polite. Such a "compliment" will not be well received unless the speaker enjoys a very intimate relationship with the woman in question. I would not recommend it even if that is the case though.

Alternatively, what if someone were to compliment Hitler while talking to a survivor of the Holocaust? While he may well be paying Hitler a perfectly decent compliment, his interlocutor will, at the very least, not find it very polite.

Merriam-Webster's relevant definition of compliment is


1 a : an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration;

especially : an admiring remark

That does not mean that a compliment need be polite, only flattering to at least one person. I would understand a polite compliment to be one that is both flattering and phrased in a polite and delicate way.

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OED Rack, n. 4, entry 11 examples: 1970 J. Bouton Ball Four v. 259 Check the rack on that broad.; 1992 P. Lefcourt Dreyfus Affair (1993) iii. 27 She sure had a nice rack. – Mitch Feb 3 '13 at 17:46
@Mitch thanks, plural removed. In my defense, I have not often, or ever, used the term in that particular context – terdon Feb 3 '13 at 18:01
I know! right? It's just like when I'm shooting up the heroin, and I've tied off my arm and am about to stick the needle in and someone says "Wait, did you just say 'shoot up the heroin'? Just stop. You're not allowed to possibly infect yourself with a dirty needle if you can't say it right." – Mitch Feb 3 '13 at 18:06

All compliments are ment to be nice and polite...but one could say "polite compliment", that would just mean that compliment was extremely polite.

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In a perfect world all compliments would be meant to be polite. Unfortunately, in the real world, there are compliments that are overt flattery, (usually used as a means of manipulation), and back-handed compliments that are actually veiled insults. – Kristina Lopez Feb 3 '13 at 17:48

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