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How should you understand the expression: "flatter to deceive"?

The Oxford Dictionaries defines flatter to deceive as:

Appear promising but ultimately disappoint.

Which is all nice and dandy. But I fail to understand the wordplay, nor how "flatter" is mechanically related to "deceive" in this expression.

For a real-life example of usage:

The podium that Kevin Magnussen scored on his debut was ultimately a case of ‘flattering to deceive.’

[Kevin Magnussen's car scored a good result in his first race, but bad to worse results thereafter. The car flattered in the beginning, and deceived later on.]

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    Do you have an example of this expression in context? I haven't seen it used before and the definition isn't very illuminating. Apr 22, 2014 at 8:29
  • It's quite literal, "mechanical" in fact. See usage examples to get an idea.
    – Kris
    Apr 22, 2014 at 8:32
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    @Kris Context should really be in the question, and telling me to Google it is not constructive. Apr 22, 2014 at 8:36
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    After To April (Henry Kirke White) "So, to us sojourners in life's low vale, The smiles of fortune flatter to deceive, While still the Fates the web of misery weave."
    – Kris
    Apr 22, 2014 at 8:40
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    @landroni: I don't know what would be most natural in French. But it is the general concepts that matter, not the expression. Flattery, appealing to someone's pride (or however one might explain or translate) can be used to mislead or deceive someone else by taking advantage of that pride. 'to' can be explicated by 'in order to' or 'to bring about'.
    – Mitch
    Apr 22, 2014 at 15:25

6 Answers 6

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Since you added the context it is easier to describe the meaning.

From the performance in the first GP Magnussen's car (and Kevin himself) looked as if they were good enough to be competitive with Mercedes and Ferrari. In the races since then it is clear that neither the car nor Magnussen are as quick as the front runners.

One of the definitions of flatter is give an unrealistically favourable impression of.

That leaves us with the deceive part. If the performance in the first race made you think that Magnussen and his car were competitive then by now you'd know that they are not, you had been deceived into think he was competitive.

This example may not be a particularly good one, flatter to deceive is usually intentional, in Magnussen's case I don't think they (McLaren) intentionally put in a spectacular performance in order to attract sponsorship or something and then allowed themselves to slip back down the order over the next few races.

Edited to add a very literal flatter to deceive example

A very young woman dates a very old billionaire, she says she loves him because he is the nicest, sweetest, most caring man she's ever met (she flatters him). He believes this, they get married, she quickly files for divorce and gets half his money. (she has deceived him)

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  • So, to paraphrase, it is to "intentionally flatter in order to deceive someone". Correct?
    – landroni
    Apr 22, 2014 at 14:48
  • @landroni Yes, usually a little less obviously than the very literal version above, and in the case of McLaren I don't think it was intentional (by McLaren) but maybe the journalists who ran with Magnussen will challenge Vettel for the Championship may have been keen to get more readers.
    – Frank
    Apr 22, 2014 at 14:54
  • Then this means that half of the times that I encounter this expression it is improperly used (as in the example above, as McLaren didn't intentionally deceive all to look good at first race but slump afterwards), as it lacks the element of intent (as you point out in your answer). Is my understanding correct?
    – landroni
    Apr 22, 2014 at 15:00
  • @landroni Yes, it's not always the case that it is intentional, in the McLaren case I suspect they knew they got lucky; good track for them (Button was third) and a number of normally top drivers out of the race effectively. The result flattered them but anyone who may have bet money on them on the next few races based on that performance will feel deceived. It's not always cut & dried that the flattery and deception is planned.
    – Frank
    Apr 22, 2014 at 15:11
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    I'm not convinced that flatter to deceive is usually used intentionally, but it may have started out that way. One of the first 20th-century uses I can find of it in Google books is from the Economist in 1984: The doubters say BAe's accounts flatter to deceive, with profits looking better because so much expenditure has been capitalised. May 19, 2016 at 11:27
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It is a term often used in football. A young player bursts onto the scene and appears to be very good. Everyone talks about how he will be the next Pele or Messi, but as the season wears on, it becomes apparent that he is not as good as originally thought. Often football fans will say that he "flattered to deceive."

In this context, clearly the young player never really "flattered" anyone. Nor was there ever intent to deliberately "deceive." So, the saying does not apply in a literal sense. Over the years, the phrase has simply taken on a new, non-literal meaning. This is common in the English language.

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Someone flatters you, thus giving you promises, but ends up deceiving you, thus disappointing you. They flattered you, only to deceive you once you bought into the flattery.

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Much of english is derived from French, and it is to the French verb decevoir we must look here. It is what students of french call a "faux-ami" or false friend. Decevoir doesn't mean deceive but disappoint. To flatter means to make someone pleased - close to the more normal meaning, ie to praise. Putting them together you get the idea of initially making someone pleased, only the more to disappoint afterwards.

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  • Ah, now this makes sense: "to flatter at first, only to disappoint later on". Curious to know that there is a French connection...
    – landroni
    May 19, 2016 at 12:29
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flattered, simply that, is used in horse racing jargon -form, to indicate that a horse briefly appeared to be going well but ultimately disappointed.

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    Welcome to ELU. It's a good idea to add further detail and some references on the answers you provide.
    – Neeku
    Oct 28, 2014 at 2:08
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With a pencil whose core is broken throughout, sharpening will always flatter to deceive. Every time a new point is created, it will look the part, but immediately fail in use, requiring sharpening all over again.

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