My wife complimented a chef on his delicate fish cookery last night.
Reply: "They're great, these boil-in-the-bag dishes."

I complimented a violinist on his performance recently and commented that it brought tears to the eyes.
Reply: "Was it that bad?"

In both cases the compliment was clearly accepted.
In both cases the response was humorous.

My question is: how do we describe such humour?

It is not sarcasm, because there is no intention to hurt or criticize:

the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way

and it is not simply banter, which seems too general a term:

to talk to someone in a friendly and humorous way

Is there a better term than these?

  • 2
    If it's a compliment, I don't deserve it seems to be self-effacing humor. Apr 23, 2023 at 17:53
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    The fact that an answer to another question could be argued to also be an answer to this one, does not make this question a duplicate of that one. This question seeks a word for something very specific; if one thinks that there is nothing more specific than self-deprecating that can be offered to describe it, one should post that as an answer here.
    – jsw29
    Apr 23, 2023 at 20:22
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    I do not accept that self-deprecating, lifted from my own explanatory comment and perhaps taken from a so-called duplicate (which is too general in its approach), is an answer to the question. It is too general a term, in the same way as I rejected banter. I consider the closure careless and overly dismissive of those who have been offering useful comment and answer particular to the question.
    – Anton
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:02
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    Does it need to be a single word? Would you not accept self-deprecating humor? Apr 24, 2023 at 1:36
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    The jury is out over whether 'no really appropriate answers' is appropriate on ELU. My view is that such answers are rarely in line with the aims of the site; they are little more than opinion/comments. // I offered 'self-deprecating' as a probable best fit <<_modest about or critical of oneself, especially humorously so_ ... self-deprecating jokes >> [Oxford Languages] but deleted this as I obviously believe the question has in essence been asked before. A word for someone that deflects compliment? Apr 24, 2023 at 12:04

5 Answers 5


You may be thinking of "deflection." Examples of deflecting a compliment can be found in Greek and Roman history. In Euripedes Medea, the title character deflects a compliment from her nurse. In the speech "Pro Marcello," Cicero deflects a compliment on his legal skills by pointing out the skills of his opponent.

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    Thank you. Constructive. I shall not accept this yet because there may be other answers to come if the question is reopened.
    – Anton
    Apr 23, 2023 at 21:03
  • @Anton — Isn't deflect the opposite of what you ask for: accept? Apr 24, 2023 at 13:48
  • I think this is the best we shall get now. Although a deflection (a small change of direction).could be indicative of rejection (deflection through 180 degrees) of the compliment, I see that it is more likely to be humorous modification of acceptance a or gentle turning of the compliment.
    – Anton
    Apr 27, 2023 at 6:36

Both replies are attempts to make light of the situation by not accepting (the sincerity of) someone's reaction, but their origins are different:

  • The first reply, "They're great, these boil-in-the-bag dishes", I believe is self-deprecation (or self-depreciation), out of genuine modesty or in an attempt to appear humble, probably with the intention to add humour:

    belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest

  • The second reply, "was it that bad?", is, or at least has a hint of, irony, incidentally because they likely interpreted your comment as irony:

    the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning:
    the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend

  • 1
    Nice analysis. Thanks.
    – Anton
    Apr 24, 2023 at 8:54

Several ideas come to mind, but I see the examples more as 'dad jokes' and I'm not quite sure I see how "[in] both cases the compliment was clearly accepted," so that may colour my responses (but feel free to steer me in the right direction if I'm mistaken).

Based on my interpretation, rapartee is what I'm hearing you describe. From Merriam and Cambridge:


  1. a. quick and witty reply
    b. a succession or interchange of clever retorts : amusing and usually light sparring with words
  2. adroitness and cleverness in reply : skill in repartee

Usage note: REPARTEE implies the power of answering quickly, pointedly, or wittily

  1. quick and usually funny answers and remarks in conversation:

    Oscar Wilde's plays are full of witty repartee.

Other ideas along the same lines are: quip, rejoinder, bon mot, witticism ("often...ironic remark" Merriam), wisecrack (clever or sarcastic remark).

Again, I don't see how the "compliment was accepted", but some of the other answers capture that and could be combined with words from above. For example: a self-effacing wisecrack or a self-deprecating quip.

A few other words more in the direction of "self-effacing" or generally "not serious" come to mind (Cambridge):


not serious about a serious subject, in an attempt to be funny or to appear clever

Usage note: Some common synonyms of facetious are humorous, jocose, jocular, [waggish], and witty. While all these words mean "provoking or intended to provoke laughter," facetious stresses a desire to produce laughter...ill-timed attempts at wit or humor

Sardonicism tends to be but is not necessarily dark/malicious, that is clever and playful, while also not being overly broad.

Here's a definition and example from the same site:


Sardonic is an adjective describing dry, understated, and sort of mocking speech or writing—such as a clever remark that stings because it’s so accurate. While sardonic comments seem slightly hostile, they are supposed to be witty and humorous rather than deeply hurtful.

I did not attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved of it. (Mark Twain)

  • Thank you for a deal of relevant contextual thought.
    – Anton
    Apr 27, 2023 at 6:29

I would consider this a witty remark or a witty retort.

[witty]: The adjective witty can be used to describe those quick little funny remarks that often demonstrate a sharp, biting humor delivered in a playful manner.

[retort]: a quick answer that is angry or funny

  • Thank you. I agree that the response is witty, although the term is very general and not tightly focussed on the turning of a compliment. On a minor point, the site encourages us to give references for our material; in this case others (such as non-native English speakers) might appreciate a dictionary reference for the words you mention.
    – Anton
    Apr 24, 2023 at 7:31

"False modesty" works, unless you feel that something false must always be bad.

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