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I'm looking for a term in English to describe being so polite that one appears to be insincere.

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    In the US, people of a certain age would understand a reference to Eddie Haskell. Wikipedia ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Haskell ) notes that the character is "recognized as an archetype for insincere sycophants" – Jim Mack Jan 23 '14 at 23:18
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    Is the insincerity intended or accidental? – Marthaª Jan 24 '14 at 0:45
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    Corny = from google : banal, trite, hackneyed, commonplace, clichéd, predictable, hoary, stereotyped, platitudinous, tired, stale, overworked, overused, well-worn; mawkish, sentimental, cloying, syrupy, sugary, saccharine; informalcheesy, schmaltzy, mushy, sloppy, cutesy, soppy, cornball, hokey. – Blessed Geek Jan 24 '14 at 7:47
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    @BlessedGeek Many of those are about expressing sentiment, not about being polite. Banal, trite, etc. are about phrases that have been so overused they no longer appear sincere. That's not quite what the OP was asking for. – starsplusplus Jan 24 '14 at 9:11
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    'Slick' - smooth and superficially impressive but insincere or shallow? Not quite on point but could work depending on context. – jmathew Jan 24 '14 at 15:23

18 Answers 18

46

This is a good page which may be helpful to you. My picks would be the following:

  • smarmy: using societal constraints/rules (i.e. politeness) to passive-aggresively/non-confrontationally get one's way. That's my interpretation, but here's an article about it.
  • oily/greasy: like a businessman or shopkeeper or something who dotes on clients/customers so heavily (and maybe crosses personal-space boundaries in so doing) that it's almost viscerally unpleasant.
  • obsequious: I would say that obsequious is more subtle than the others, but again, that's my interpretation. Look for uses in books or something.

I disagree with the MacMillan page on the following points:

  • 'Suave' I take to mean smooth, well-dressed, and having nice things, with no connotation of insincerity.
  • 'Proper' I take to mean stiff or rigid politeness; again, not necessarily insincere (cranky people besotted with their rules can be sincere!)
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    +1 for 'obsequious'. Also 'sycophantic'. Both of those are neutral as to intent. – XML Jan 24 '14 at 0:54
  • Related to Smarmy are "catty" and "nice-nasty" Though "catty" is often more nasty than nice. (Both slang) – TecBrat Jan 24 '14 at 13:43
  • +1 for obsequious precisely because it is neutral as to intent. The original question gets at "seems to be insincere," not "is insincere": the impression, not the intention, of insincerity. – Joan Pederson Jan 28 '14 at 19:50
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I like unctuous...

unc·tu·ous [uhngk-choo-uhs] adjective 1. characterized by excessive piousness or moralistic fervor, especially in an affected manner; excessively smooth, suave, or smug.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unctuous?s=ts

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    Ooooh this is a good one – Aidan Miles Jan 23 '14 at 21:11
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    It's a good word, but I don't think it brings connotations of insincerity? – GreenAsJade Jan 25 '14 at 0:55
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saccharine, adj.

1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of sugar or saccharin; sweet.

2. Having a cloyingly sweet attitude, tone, or character: a saccharine smile.

Literally, it is a chemical that is an artificial sweetener. Figuratively, it can be used to describe a person or action that is so sweet it seems to be artificial.

14

There is fawning which means displaying exaggerated flattery or affection. There is also feigned politeness which means simulated or pretended; insincere. Which brings us full circle to insincere.

9

Ingratiate/ingratiating - trying to bring oneself into favour with someone by flattery.

or maybe Obsequious/ness - being overly polite, and over ready to comply with the desires of others.

6

Cloying. I just read this in an online article, and it's exactly the word I couldn't come up with earlier.

5

'Fake'. Its one of those words. It is a bit wide in its use and ambiguous without enough context. It conveys ulterior motive on part of the faker. It also conveys that the observer is smart enough to see through the facade.

5

In conversation, I would probably have used over-polite as the term.

Looking up on google, I see the word mannered fits quite well:

  • "formal in a way that is intended to impress other people"
4

Not seen sycophantic mentioned yet.

3

It's not a standard word, but hyperpolite would be understood, perhaps with the connotation of a socially inept person trying to do the right thing but going over the top, rather than of an obsequious person trying to ingratiate himself.

2

I like "disingenuous." Although this word can mean "insincere," I generally associate disingenuous behavior with pretext behavior which, if I understand your question, is exactly what you are looking for. And there's another word, maybe. "Pretext."

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You haven't noted whether or not it is the speaker's intent to be insincere.

Along those lines, I would suggest that one could purposefully be overly polite - and when veiled in thick sarcasm, the speaker would certainly come across as insincere.

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    Is insincerity something which you can positively intend? Is it not the lack of real intent at being sincere that produces insincerity? – WS2 Jan 24 '14 at 0:29
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    You make a good point @WS2. Perhaps it can be intentional whether the listener notices your lack of sincerity though. – starsplusplus Jan 24 '14 at 9:15
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    @WS2 - I would say that's just arguing semantics. In simplistic terms, a person either intends to be sincere, or not. To say their intent is to not be sincere, or that they don't intend to be sincere, or that they intend to be insincere, is all the same (I think). – Kevin Fegan Jan 24 '14 at 10:26
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Try: adipose, greasy, oily, fat, fatty, oleaginous, pinguid, sebaceous, blandish, lubricious, smooth, slippery, fawning, glib, obsequious, plausible, servile, suave, sycophantic, fervid, gushing.

There should be something there that fits!

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I would like to suggest "fulsome":

"Although the earliest use of fulsome (first recorded in the 13th century) was ‘generous or abundant’, this meaning is now regarded by some people as wrong. The correct meaning today is held to be ‘excessively complimentary or flattering’. However, the word is still often used in its original sense of ‘abundant’, especially in sentences such as she was fulsome in her praise for the people who organized it, and this use can give rise to ambiguity: for one speaker, fulsome praise may be a genuine compliment, whereas for others it will be interpreted as an insult."

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/fulsome

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    To me, that usage note constitutes a suggestion to stop using this word at all! – AakashM Jan 24 '14 at 9:27
  • Since it's liable to misinterpretation, I suppose that's a valid response. I certainly learned the word with its modern connotation of cynicism. I was taught to regard its use in the original naive sense as naively mistaken. It may be one of those linguistic traps laid by the class system. – Jonathan Maddox Jan 31 '14 at 4:43
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Insincerity, whether it is purposeful or not does not matter people. The point is the person appears to be insincere due to exaggerated amount of politeness. Its unknown the person's reasons for the overkindliness.

Unctuous is the the best post thus far and smarmy is the next. Both, however, do not state whether the person appears insincere. Simply that the person is being overly polite.

I don't believe there is such a word as the question is asking for. Unctuous could be used like this to reach the same affect as the question asked: Their unctuous behavior made them appear insincere.

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I haven't seen condescending mentioned. having or showing a feeling of patronizing superiority

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Charles Dickens created one of the best architypes for this behaviour in his book David Copperfield. His villainous, fawning character is "Uriah Heep".

Reading about Uriah Heep will give you great insight and vocabulary in the description of this character.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uriah_Heep

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The word you need is "smarmy"--or at least that's what the Oxford advanced Learner's Dictionary suggests.

protected by FumbleFingers Jan 24 '14 at 23:27

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