Is there a term for a compliment that is given by favorably comparing one person to another or by putting another person down simultaneously?

I recently received one and found I lacked a term to describe them and the mix of competitiveness, superiority, guilt, and pity you feel in response.

Edit: There seems to be a little confusion about what I'm looking for, so please allow me to clarify. This should be an actual compliment. The salient point is that it builds one person up while tearing another down. Instead of just saying you're good at something, it says another person can't approach your level of performance (as an example).

  • 1
    Are you talking about a left-handed compliment or something else? Can you give an example?
    – Drew
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 20:58
  • As an example: "you're so much better at X than your peer!" Instead of just praising you, it puts another down. Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 22:50
  • 1
    It's a good question. I don't think any of the answers so far are correct. There may be no English phrase for this. Commented May 1, 2017 at 6:45
  • @JoshFriedlander, I'm starting to think there isn't an English phrase for this. Commented May 1, 2017 at 17:58

5 Answers 5


The most appropriate term will depend on the situation and who is being compared to whom. As an example, if someone tells Bob You're a hundred times funnier than Stephen Colbert, Bob should take that as a huge compliment because objectively speaking, Stephen Colbert is a good comedian. However, if the compliment was : Stephen Colbert is a much worse comedian than Bob, this is lexically ambiguous, bitter-sweet, and probably a left-handed compliment.

I would suggest that any of the following are appropriate when both people being compared are peers or colleagues of one another.

When Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) painted the portrait of the Scots poet Beattie; one of the demons Beattie is seen driving away, was identified as being Voltaire

The vexation of Goldsmith, when he saw this painting, overflowed all bounds. “It is unworthy, ” he said “of a man of eminence like you, Sir Joshua, to descend to flattery such as this.How could you think of degrading so high a genius as Voltaire before so mean a writer as Beattie. Beattie and his book will be forgotten in ten years; but your allegorical picture and the fame of Voltaire will live to your disgrace as a flatterer.” There was as much good sense as envy in this. The picture was an inconsiderate compliment, and rose from the false estimate which Reynolds had formed of the genius of Beattie.

The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters and Sculptors By Allan Cunningham


It's not a perfect phrase, as it can be used for other situations, but this sounds like an example of the complimenter pitting you and your peer against one another. The phrase pit against (someone or something) is an idiom meaning

Set in direct opposition or competition, as in The civil war pitted brother against brother. This idiom alludes to setting fighting cocks or dogs against one another in a pit. [ Mid-1700s ] (The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary, via Dictionary.com)

I have heard it used for this exact sort of situation, particularly in relation to what not to do as a parent. For example:

Comparisons can sometimes make our children feel competitive and resentful towards each other because they are being judged and compared by Mum and Dad, and pitted against each other. (Simone Cave & Caroline Fertleman, Coping with Two: A Stress-free Guide to Managing a New Baby when You Have Another Child, 2012)

A similar bit of parental advice may partly suggest why you were uncomfortable when being praised and compared in this way:

[A]void comparisons of the children as much as possible. Such comparisons are rarely fair and are always undesirable. . . . To hold up one child as an example of goodness is to invite other children to resent and dislike him. They may even try to revenge themselves on this paragon. Instead of pitting one child against another we should try to appreciate each child for his own good points, to encourage him to develop his own abilities and to feel important for what he is himself and not just how he compares with the other child. (Karl S. Berhnardt, Being a Parent: Unchanging Values in a Changing World, 2016)

Of course, it's not just parents who pit siblings against one another in this way. One last example:

As scholars, philosophers and politicians asserted women's inability for self-analysis, so they took it upon themselves – as critiques such as Goethe's demonstrate – to define women. This articulation is nowhere more taxonomic than in the descriptions of performers, where the merits of one were often pitted against those of another. There is a sense in such comparisons not merely of definition, but of creation: women animated and unified from the quality of a list by virtue of their contrast with others – but animated chiefly into the type on which that contrast is predicated. (Suzanne Aspden, The Rival Sirens: Performance and Identity on Handel's Operatic Stage, 2013)


A backhanded compliment.

Here's a reference from Wikipedia:

Backhanding is referred to as slapping someone using the back of the hand instead of the palm—that is generally a symbolic, less forceful blow. Correspondingly, a backhanded (or left-handed) compliment, is an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional.


Person A: Ugh, I'm so ugly!

Person B: Aw, don't worry, I'm sure there are dozens of people who are uglier than you.

  • 2
    As your definition says, a backhanded compliment is not a compliment at all. The OP is looking for something that is a compliment. Commented May 1, 2017 at 15:00
  • This is just an insult masquerading as a compliment. While it does put down "dozens of people", the important thing is that it's still telling the recipient that they're one of the ugliest people on Earth. I'm looking for something that is a genuine compliment that doesn't rate you on an objective scale, but rather relative to another person favorably. Commented May 1, 2017 at 18:01

I'll offer the neologism zero-sum compliment, based on the phrase zero-sum-game.

A zero-sum game is defined as:

a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it (Merriam-Webster)


Generally, an inappropriate thing to say, due to the nature of it not providing the positive reinforcement that might be expected from a compliment. Regardless of its value as a compliment, it is at least an insult to the other person. In this case, it may be a "thinly veiled insult".

If that person expects the referenced person to overhear that statement (or similar statements), it may be a passive-aggressive statement. If they aren't aware they're doing it and certain other factors are involved, it may be a microaggression.

I would also personally consider it to be rude, as it may be intended to manipulate both parties involved in the statement without actually meaning to praise either of them, meaning it could be referred to as a rude and manipulative compliment.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.