I don't mean euphemisms or backhanded compliments (or the reverse). It's the words which sound grand, but actually have a bad meaning (e.g., jumentous: smelling strongly like a beast of burden). Is there any word to define this conceptually?

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    "The title says it all" - now. Your edit makes this an entirely different question from the one you originally posted. Better form would have been to post a new one, I think. – MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 8:44
  • In my head it was obvious. I see now it can be read differently. Edited to clarify. Thanks. – user3671 Jun 20 '11 at 9:09
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    what is that makes you example - 'jumentous' sound 'grand'? (similarity with momentous and gargantous? an ending of -ous? the fact that it is not common?) – Unreason Jun 20 '11 at 10:29
  • Not an answer, but one of my favorite examples - In one of the Kai Lung stories (don't have it handy to check which), Kai Lung addresses a pompous but relatively unlettered mandarin as "Your excrescence". – MickeyfAgain_BeforeExitOfSO Jun 20 '11 at 14:00

Sesquipedalianism is the habit of using long (sesquipedalian, or "foot-and-a-half") words; it doesn't specifically mean "using long words in order to disguise insults", but a few people I know who are habitual sesquipedalianists1 do so for exactly that reason.

Obscurantism is "deliberate obscurity or evasion of clarity"; if you habitually use long words to hide your true meaning, you're an obscurantist.

I can't think of any word that combines those meanings with the specific intent to hide insults.

1 This word doesn't seem to actually exist yet, so I'm coining it. "Sesquipedalian" is the adjective form, but it refers to the words themselves, not the people who [mis]use them.


Some phrases to describe the process: damning with faint praise, a left-handed compliment, asteism.

Some examples:

  • Brave (often means stupid: "That's brave of you!")
  • Interesting (can mean boring: "How very interesting." or stupid: "An interesting idea. Why don't you present that at the next staff meeting?")
  • Special (its sense of developmentally disabled was originally meant as a polite euphemism, as in the Special Olympics or special needs... but because of that association, one can sneer at anything by calling it "special", while appearing to praise it. "Oh, did your kid make that mug for you? Well, isn't that special?")
  • Great personality (when you're being set up for a blind date, if your friend tells you that your date has "a great personality", it means s/he is ugly. Or at least that's the cliché.)
  • The asker specifically says they don't want backhanded compliments, or those used ironically, but words that really mean something insulting. – Hugo Jun 20 '11 at 9:53
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    +1 For asteism. I think this is a good answer. It is "polite mockery." I think it applies because the words are "polite" insofar as they sound nice, but "mockery" because they are not actually nice. @MT_Head I think this answer could be improved by removing the sarcastic uses of nice words, and instead giving examples of nice-sounding insults. Unless you think I am being too quixotic. :) – Kit Z. Fox Jun 20 '11 at 14:18
  • @Hugo - Here's the title and text of the original question (to which this was my answer): "What are some insulting words which sound like praise? - The title says it all. Is there any word to define this conceptually?" The OP changed his question after my answer. – MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 16:24
  • @Kit - I see what you did there... – MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 16:46

I'd say 'ostentatious' sounds quite grand, but is generally a bit of an insult.

  • But the OP is asking for a word that describes these kinds of insults. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 20 '11 at 14:36

An insult that can sound like a compliment if you say it with a smile 'You are amazingly obsequious ". Sounds like a compliment but it really means you are an amazing brown noser

  • This does not answer the question. The asker wants to know a general term for the phenomenon, not additional examples. – M. K. Hunter Nov 6 '14 at 2:48

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