Is there a name for the device of writing in a disparaging tone while actually complimenting someone?

Suggested edit: What happened is that I intended to compliment a writer, but to do so in a rough-and-tumble, masculine jousting, verbally sparring way, for humor, and to add some distance in a context of others' compliments becoming somewhat too much.

Sadly, another poster misunderstood my badinage, and suggested I was churlish for being so critical. I defended my good intentions as mere slagging, and was happily understood. Situation resolved. But in the process, I realized I was short a good solid noun to characterize the nature of my cack-handled compliment.

It went something like this: "Schwartz isn't that smart. He's just got a few cute tricks like a comprehensive understanding of history and how it affects a few philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, Nietschze, Freud, Marx and some others. along with a smattering of Psychology, politics and . . . " and so on, just for fun.

My thought was: "Mock criticism," But since posting, I have learned from many of the fine members of this site, many of the terms I've woven into my edit, as well as "thinly-veiled compliment" and "litotes," which I lacked the wit to work into this.

In retrospect, thank you, one and all!

  • 2
    'Verbal irony' is a hypernym. But it's not precise enough to give as an 'answer'. I don't think I've come across a more specific term with the definition you require. Mar 28, 2018 at 14:44
  • 1
    It would help if you described the motive of the speaker for doing this. There are some terms of political discourse where the motive is to not alienate voters or campaign contributors, groups that frequently have conflicting desires. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If-by-whiskey, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog-whistle_politics
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 28, 2018 at 15:30
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    Some examples would be helpful.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 28, 2018 at 16:14
  • My intention is to compliment a writer, but to do so in a rough-and-tumble, masculine jousting, verbally sparring way. The purpose is for the sake of humor, and to add some distance in a context of others' compliments becoming somewhat too much. My thought was: "Mock criticism."
    – Tim Tully
    Mar 28, 2018 at 16:17
  • 1
    @TimTully best to also edit your question with this new info. Also, if you don’t add a example sentence with a blank where you want the word to go, your question may unfortunately get closed.
    – k1eran
    Mar 28, 2018 at 17:23

13 Answers 13


Perhaps something along the lines of being tongue in cheek :

characterized by insincerity, irony, or whimsical exaggeration


It’s not a backhanded compliment—that’s the opposite, a way of insulting someone while seeming to compliment them.

a backhanded (or left-handed) compliment, or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional

Wikpedia: Insult, Backhanded Compliment

So, by way of parallelism, I suggest backhanded insult—and I am not alone.

"Backhanded insulted" is a relatively new term, with only 70K hits on google. The phrase itself is somewhat of a reaction to the phrase "backhanded compliment."

Quora: What is the difference between a backhanded compliment and a backhanded insult?

The allusion to backhanded compliment makes this term clear even to those who have never seen it, and it runs no risk of being misunderstood, as attempting to repurpose backhanded compliment itself would.

  • 5
    If I read "Backhanded insult" I'd just assume that the writer had actually meant to write "Backhanded compliment." and was actually attempting to be mean. Mar 28, 2018 at 19:33
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    @Adonalsium That would not be the meaning of the words themselves, and I’m not sure why you would assume an author’s word choice was mistaken.
    – KRyan
    Mar 28, 2018 at 21:03
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    Because it's such an uncommon phrase that it seems more likely to be an eggcorn than anything else. Mar 29, 2018 at 12:32
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    Miswriting and misreading are not like mishearing, so eggcorn and mondegreen are excluded.
    – AmI
    Mar 29, 2018 at 20:53
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    I agree with @Adonalsium. This is tough to describe, but.. I think the reason is that the word "backhanded" in "backhanded compliment" sounds "mean" somehow. That's because a "compliment" by itself is a good thing. Prepending the word "backhanded" turns it into a bad thing. So let's think.. An insult is a bad thing. Prepending the word "backhanded" makes it sound even worse (due to my familiarity with the phrase "backhanded compliment"), even though the literal meaning is the opposite. No, this isn't logical, but that's how language works. People don't process words like robots might.
    – user428517
    Mar 29, 2018 at 21:11

a thinly veiled compliment Longman

thinly disguised/veiled if something is thinly disguised etc, someone is pretending it is something else, but you can easily see what it really is

As in:

"I'm surprised you could do that good a job!"

In the lexicon of compliments and insults ... it is best judged in the eyes of the parties involved! Many nuances ... and differences on both sides of the pond!

  • 9
    "I'm surprised you could do that good a job" is a thinly veiled insult, not a compliment.
    – AndyT
    Mar 29, 2018 at 8:41

In Ireland, slagging is used for a good natured criticism and mockery, especially between friends. In fact the better the friendship the higher the level of tolerated slagging. In a weird way, the things or people we are most proud of get slagged the most.

Irish mass noun
Good-natured teasing.
‘there was a bit of slagging but it is all good craic’.

Here is the beginning of an Irish Independent article that explains it better than I can.

Anton Savage August 16 2008 12:00 AM.
In America, positive reinforcement comes in clearly marked packages. Parents are told to tell their kids they are special and unique. Bosses are told to tell their staff how valuable they are and what a great contribution they make to the company.

In Ireland, we've always tended to gift-wrap our positives somewhat differently. We do it by insult. The closeness of Irish friendships -- particularly Irish male friendships -- can often be measured by how egregiously the friends insult each other. Incompetence, ineptitude with the opposite sex, shortness, tallness, fatness, skinniness, hairiness and baldness are all highlighted to tighten the bonds of mutual affection. Few other cultures do that. In Ireland a salesman can tell his team he's finally landed a big client and the team will say, 'glad to see you've finally pulled your thumb out, Mick'. But Mick will know what's meant is, 'we're proud of you'. We undermine each other to reinforce each other. [...]

  • 2
    Good one. "Slagging" is my new word of the day. Thank you.
    – Tim Tully
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:10
  • Hey downvoter, any feedback appreciated even if it’s negative!
    – k1eran
    Mar 28, 2018 at 20:02
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    Please note in most of the rest of the U.K. and Australia, slagging off is insulting talk, usually behind someone's back and is not seen as good natured. Urban dictionary explains it more, errr eloquently
    – mcalex
    Mar 29, 2018 at 3:11
  • @mcalex I think that’s a fair point, and Ireland has that usage too, but you can normally tell from the context which version is intended. Chill out, I was was only slagging would be a different usage than Please stop slagging off your boss behind her back.
    – k1eran
    Mar 29, 2018 at 20:44
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    Understood. We (in Au) would rarely use it without the 'off' and always offensively. It's odd, coz we happily use insults in a good natured sense regularly. (Also not the d/v, btw)
    – mcalex
    Mar 29, 2018 at 21:46

I can only see a compliment coming across if the "disparaging" tone is lighthearted. In that vein, it may just be teasing, such as "She wasn't my first choice, or even my second, but she's proven to be the most valuable team member."

Badinage: "humorous or light-hearted conversation that often involves teasing someone."

Another similar term that come up in the thesaurus is:

Persiflage: "light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter."

  • "Badinage" is good. Though I'm thinking it would less teasing than verbally sparring, in a friendly way.
    – Tim Tully
    Mar 28, 2018 at 16:22
  • I believe it is teasing. I've seen enough of it to recognize it.
    – Bread
    Mar 29, 2018 at 0:32
  • There's also ribbing
    – kettlecrab
    Mar 29, 2018 at 2:07

From Collins Dictionary...

A backhanded compliment is a remark which seems to be an insult but could also be understood as a compliment.

But note that they continue with A backhanded compliment is also a remark which seems to be a compliment but could also be understood as an insult. So it can cut both ways, so to speak.

It's not exactly in common use, but to me a cack-handed compliment seems a useful way of conveying the sense of something intended as a compliment, but which the recipient interprets as a criticism (which may or may not be OP's precise intended context).

For example...

I always feel more intelligent after reading your comments

Interpretation (1) - reading your (clever) comments expands my intellectual horizons. Interpretation (2) - reading your (dumb) comments makes me realise I'm much smarter than you.

EDIT: I love the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, with High Priest John Cleese questioning the advantages of Roman rule...

...apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

...brilliantly parodied some years later by...

What have the BBC ever given us?

Per comments below, there's some disagreement as to whether the expression covers "superficially negative, intended positively" as well as "superficially positive, intended negatively". Personally, I'm more than happy to describe Cleese's contribution to both the above scenes as "back-handed compliments".

But obviously once you start thinking about the intent of such utterances, there's scope for confusion. In my Romans / BBC examples, it really depends on whether we're talking about the motivations of the character being portrayed (negative intent), or the actor / scriptwriters (positive intent).

  • 3
    Neither definition of 'backhanded compliment' claims what the remark actually is intended to be, only what interpreters judge it to be. The irony could well be well understood in OP's case. Mar 28, 2018 at 15:02
  • +1. Could you expatiate on your answer with an example or two? A garnish would be a nice touch. Don Mar 28, 2018 at 15:03
  • @Edwin: The only subtle point I could see missing in Collins' definition is that bit about which seems to be an insult (as opposed to which is intended as an insult), which I covered obliquely by bringing up the alternative cack-handed compliment (always "well-meant", even if it doesn't come across well). Mar 28, 2018 at 15:16
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    I have never heard this used for anything other than something that is very intentionally an insult that seems like a compliment. In my experience, Collins is wrong about the other usage. If nothing else, the existence and prevalence of the alternative usage makes this a poor suggestion.
    – KRyan
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:20
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    @FumbleFingers Merriam–Webster (an American dictionary) only lists the insult-posing-as-compliment meaning, lending some credence to the idea that AmE avoids that meaning. Cambridge doesn’t seem to have it at all, but has “left-handed compliment” and defines that as an apparent compliment that could be an insult (but not the reverse), though, and that’s BrE. Wikipedia is supposed to be international, and that again does not suggest that this reverse usage exists. In fact, so far, Collins seems to be the only dictionary I can find that does (though OED won’t let me search without signing in).
    – KRyan
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:35

We're all familiar with Socratic irony. Socrates, the master eiron, would string people along, as if to say (in the words of Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase"),

Mr. Hart, you're still not speaking loud enough. Will you stand? Speak louder, Mr. Hart! Fill the room with your intelligence!

Clearly, both Socrates and Professor Kingsfield dissed their interlocutors, and Kingsfield in particular was not calling Hart an intelligent man!

However, did Socrates ever pretend to be dissing an interlocutor only to be praising him in a back-handed sort of way? Offhand, I cannot think of an example.

To be sure, however, the phenomenon you describe involves irony. In the rhetorical figure called litotes (lī′tə-tēz′, lĭt′ə-, lī-tō′tēz), for example, you have what I call two negatives making a positive. Instead of saying in a straight, complimentary way

Boy, Hudson, your speech really attracted a large crowd!

you could also say,

Hey, Hudson, that was no small crowd at your little speech.

The second comment is not a straight-forward compliment, but it gets there, albeit circuitously.

The first comment is more obviously effusive, while the second comment is a bit guarded in its praise. Perhaps the comment maker doesn't want to give Hudson a big head, so he tones down the praise a bit with litotes. Then again, because of a personality "defect," the comment maker simply hates giving praise because (say) doing so makes him feel inferior. In reality, perhaps, he's just envious of his friend's speaking ability and has difficulty praising him outright.

In conclusion, the phenomenon you describe involves irony, to be sure, but as for which bastard child of irony we're talking about I have no small amount of ignorance. Perhaps a specialist in Socratic irony could pick up where I left off?


A Roast

In the US there's a thing called a roast, where the guest of honour gets criticised and insulted during the course of the evening - sometimes they make fun of themselves. This is not serious, but it can get edgy.

I'm not sure how it would work in written form - especially without the non verbal body cues needed for this sort of humour, maybe if you identified that you were doing a written roast in the intro or title of your piece.

  • But a roast is not usually understood as trying to compliment the subject.
    – Barmar
    Apr 2, 2018 at 20:26

Actually, I believe "irony" to be the correct term:

i·ro·ny (ˈīrənē) noun: irony the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

In your example, this might work in a simple response such as, "It's irony!" Depending upon the audience, one might need to provide additional explanation such as:

A "comprehensive understanding of history" is not a "cute trick"; I relied on everyone, including the reader, knowing that and recognizing my oxymoronic phraseology as a use of irony.

  • You need to cite the dictionary you got that definition from (preferably including a link too).
    – Laurel
    Mar 29, 2018 at 19:48

Perhaps asteismus might serve. The redoubtable "Silva Rhetoricae" site at Brigham Young University labels it polite or genteel mockery, exemplified by an exchange from Much Ado About Nothing:

Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! [of not marrying] so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratch'd face.

Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an 't were such a face as yours were.

  • Not quite what I had in mind. I'm not mocking the man in question, but praising him, thinly veiled in criticism's clothing.
    – Tim Tully
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:15
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    That's sort of what I was thinking: B & B are, after all, seducing each other.
    – Rob_Ster
    Mar 28, 2018 at 18:19

Surprisingly there is such a word. Humblebrag

an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.


"I can't believe I sounded like such a idiot on TV last night"


Perhaps the word "facetious" could apply here. It is frequently used to explain a miscommunication such as the one you describe after the message has been interpreted literally and/or has caused offense.

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of facetious

1 : joking or jesting often inappropriately : waggish just being facetious

2 : meant to be humorous or funny : not serious a facetious remark

Nor was Liebling seriously asserting that his facetious bit of investigation into Tin Pan Alley history constituted a refutation of Sartre's philosophy. —Raymond Sokolov, Wayward Reporter, 1980

the essay is a facetious commentary on the absurdity of war as a solution for international disputes


It seems to me that in the old days they had a term for mock-criticism, and that was "satire". Molière's LES PRECIEUSES RIDICULES for example, was a satire of the pretentious, pedantic literary salons of his day. But it might not have been limited to literary or artistic criticism. Swift's works were a corrosive satire of social and political life of XVIIIth CENTURY Britain.

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