In this example here,

  1. He is very weak at speaking English

Do the words "very weak" sound rather insulting or are they objective?

I am asking this because my friend found it very insulting in a sentence in this statement,

  1. Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.

(I am not asking to judge Trump. I just want to know how this sentence sounds like to the average American.)

Does this sentence sounds more critical than the previous one because Ms. Yates is a professional and the White House is degrading her ability?

  • 1
    They mean different things, both harsh. He is weak, that is a judgment about poor strength. He is a beginner, that is a neutral fact. Yates is weak, that is a political judgement that her position is not my position, and therefore it is poor. The statement is in the form of shorthand: shortened and encoded for those in the know to understand the underlying criticism. – Yosef Baskin Jun 21 '17 at 22:00
  • 2
    Just because its insulting doesn't mean it isn't a fact. – developerwjk Jun 21 '17 at 22:29
  • It depends to some extent on what the objects of the attributed weakness are. For example, calling someone "weak on self-dealing and very weak on petty vengefulness" might actually be a compliment. But calling someone "weak on comprehension and very weak on ratiocination" is unmistakably uncomplimentary, whether it's true or not.. – Sven Yargs Jun 21 '17 at 22:46
  • My earlier comment was just in general. Speaking more particularly to the political usage of "weak on X," saying someone is weak on a certain thing is actually diplomatic, i.e. its an attempt to be conciliatory, to accuse them of mere weakness on the topic rather than of pursuing purposefully destructive policies. E.g. "Ms. Yates is weak on illegal immigration" is much softer than saying "Ms. Yates is actively promoting illegal immigration." – developerwjk Jun 21 '17 at 22:58
  • "weak on x" doesn't cast a broader shadow IMO. You could say Peyton Manning can be argued to be the best regular season quarterback ever but he was very weak at throwing when forced out of the pocket". Even the very best have a few 'weaknesses' and when you use "very weak at" I think it is most often used to point out exceptional traits rather than to be understood as a general dismissal of personal qualities. – Tom22 Jun 21 '17 at 23:51

Whether something is an insult or not is more to do with context than actual words.

We can tell you that weak means:

  1. lacking in rhetorical or creative force or effectiveness: a weak reply to the charges; one of the author's weakest novels

  2. deficient in mental power, intelligence, or judgment: a weak mind

  3. deficient, lacking, or poor in something specified: a hand weak in trumps; I'm weak in spelling

so it's definitely a negative word. Probably "lacking in effectiveness" is the most apt for the Ms. Yates quote.

What makes it an insult is saying something negative about an area somebody thinks (or would like to think) they are good at. If somebody said "Andy is rubbish at table football" I wouldn't take it as an insult, because I agree with them; but if someone said "Andy is rubbish at throwing frisbees" I might be slightly more insulted, because I think I'm quite good at it. Even then, if someone I knew and liked was saying it as a joke, I wouldn't be insulted as I would enjoy the joke. But if someone I didn't like said it, I would be insulted.

In the words of Mari-Lou A (from a comment) the statement about Ms. Yates:

"is insulting because the insinuation is that Sally Yates was an incompetent, unprofessional and unqualified Deputy Attorney General. It is an insult on her years of service, her professionalism and career."

Note that it is insulting because it says she was no good at her job. Replacing "weak" with "no good at" doesn't stop it being an insult.

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