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I have always considered "your reputation precedes you" as a gesture of complement and respect. However it occurred to me if it is possible to use it for a notorious person with a bad reputation?

Imagine I use my time machine and arrange a meeting with [e.g.] Stalin. If I say your reputation precedes you, can I safely* assume it will be interpreted as an insult?**


* safely, from a linguistic viewpoint and not my physical safe!

** insult, from a linguistic viewpoint and not Mr. Stalin's ego.

  • 1
    I think it can certainly be used in that sense, and as insults go, it is quite safe. Depending on the used tone of voice, it can certainly be seen as other than a compliment - and if it is taken as an insult, you would have a nice acceptable way out by saying that you meant his great strategical insight. – oerkelens Apr 17 '14 at 11:09
  • This is entirely subjective. Depending on the author, person, situation, setting, etc, it can mean something positive, negative and even neutral. You only would need to refer to certain stories, such as The Portrait of Dorian Grey, The Count of Monte Cristo, and a story by Ayn Rand (forget which) all have examples of a negative or notorious character having their reputation preceded them. – Tucker Apr 17 '14 at 11:24
  • ... Yes, as is evidenced by the fact that OP is asking '[C]an I safely assume it will be interpreted as an insult?** ... [**from purely semantic considerations]. [my 'paraphrasing']. Is even 'Mr X caused the death of millions of innocent men, women and children' an insult if true? The question "Has the statement 'Mr X, your reputation precedes you' negative connotations for various infamous Mr X's?" would be easier to answer. Yes; many people would infer that Mr X is not being complimented. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 17 '14 at 11:34
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    As an insult, I prefer Your reputation exceeds you. – bib Apr 17 '14 at 12:38
  • Certainly it can go either way, depending on what that reputation is. It's use in a scenario such as you describe has a certain sarcastic twist which is a good device to use in the right circumstances. – Hot Licks Oct 11 '15 at 18:20
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I think you are merely stating that they have a reputation that people know about. It's all in how people deem that reputation as to whether it would be an insult.

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One truly cannot assume it will be interpreted as an insult. That is the beauty of it. As @oerkelens says, one can always protect oneself by saying it is a compliment - and everyone else in the room (and maybe even the subject of the comment) will still secretly know it is an insult.

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Here are a few recent published examples in which "your reputation precedes you" is used to allude to something potentially or actually unflattering.

From Jon Land, Kingdom of the Seven (1994):

"Let's say our concerns closely parallel those of the Food and Drug. You opened a door you shouldn't have."

"Bad habit of mine, Maggs."

"Anyone else, we would have ignored it. But your reputation precedes you. Whenever you start asking about something, that something is usually in for trouble."

"And rightfully, in almost every case."

"Not this one," Maggs said flatly, folding his arms before him around his overcoat.

From Mademoiselle: The Magazine for the Smart Young Woman (1999) [snippet]:

Your reputation precedes you—unfortunately. While you prefer to think of yourself as charmingly sociable and experimental, you heartbreakers are often accused of being flighty, flirtatious and kinky (not that there's anything wrong with that).

From Rob Roznowski & Kirk Domer, Collaboration in Theatre: A Practical Guide for Designers and Directors (2009):

Although referrals and securing future work is paramount, one element of the collaboration must be addressed—your reputation. Your reputation precedes you and, in most cases, is never made known to you. It is whispered or e-mailed but rarely shared with you. Your reputation is usually created in moments of highest stress. Review those moments of the production that were most stressful and examine your behavior. Did you "lose it" or did you rationally deak with the problem? Your reputation can usually be traced to those defining moments. Why not change your reputation from someone who "freaks out easily" to someone who is "graceful under pressure"? Reputations can be changed. History cannot.

From Michael Brandman, Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues (2011):

"I know who you are," Tauber said. "Your reputation precedes you."

"Oh," Jesse said. "What reputation is that?"

"Your serious alcohol-related issues."

From Martha Finney, The Truth About Getting the Best from People (2012):

It's not so easy to fake your reputation. When you screw up in a big way as a manager, word is going to get around. Let's face it. People like to talk. And they especially like to forewarn. So when people say, "Your reputation precedes you," they're not kidding.

From Kelly Edwards, Scorcher (2012):

Aidan suppressed a groan. She was already anxious for the elevator to clear out so she could continue on to her destination.

A name badge caught her eye and she gave him an icy smile.

"That's because your reputation precedes you, Mr. Robertson. Perhaps if you spent as much time on your career as you do chatting up the new girls, you'd have moved up by now."

Clearly, just as reputations can be positive or negative, the implication of the phrase "your reputation precedes you" can be positive or negative.

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Well the statement is either a huge compliment or a huge insult. It is only in the context and speaker's tone that you could figure out which is which.

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Com'n... of course it swings both ways. A lot of people above are really getting too in depth. All it means essentially is that the description person B heard about person A seems to ring true in person B's mind after meeting person A.

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It's what could be interpreted as a backhanded complement - an insult disguised as a compliment. Other examples might be (in a reference letter) "Any company would be really lucky to get Steve to work for them." - either he's a great worker or a seriously lazy one, who knows?

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Overall it's a negitive connotation in my opinion. But technially it's totally subjective and it really depends on the reputation of the person wouldn't it?

For example, the company/corp. you work for is bringing in a new boss from another division/location, who is known for being a hard ass & ruthless tyrant to the people under him. Horror stories are whispered around the office about this guy. His reputation literally precedes him. Then his first day comes and he takes over & you go to meet him with everybody else. If you go to shake his hand and you tell him his reputation precedes him. That's a f-you statement for sure. And everyone around would think it was a bold choice of words to say the least.

But on the other hand, you could say the same thing to Gandhi & it would be a compliment. But i have a feeling nobody would.

So it has become known as a backhanded compliment, which is a insult in disguise.

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"I, in my small way, would like to think it had as much to do with me as with you. That my reputation preceded me." "Isn't that usually a pejorative clause?"

Hal, Infinite Jest, p. 29

Far from definitive, but as usage questions go, I would trust that fictional 10 year old over most authorities.

protected by user140086 Feb 27 '16 at 16:04

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