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Backhanded compliment

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Backhanded compliment

This article is about the degrading remark. For the novel, see The Insult. For the 1932 film, see Insult (film). For the cause of injury, see Insult (disambiguation).


An insult is an expression, statement (or sometimes behavior) which is considered degrading, offensive and impolite. Insults (sometimes called "cracks" "remarks" or one-liners)[1] may be intentional or accidental. An insult may be factual, but at the same time pejorative, such as the word "inbred".

Exchange

Lacan considered insults a primary form of social interaction, central to the imaginary order - 'a situation that is symbolised in the "Yah-boo, so are you" of the transitivist quarrel, the original form of aggressive communication'.[2]

Erving Goffman points out that every 'crack or remark set up the possibility of a counter-riposte, topper, or squelch, that is, a comeback'.[3] He cites the example of possible interchanges at a dance in a school gym:

  • 'A one-liner: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Crumbles"
  • A comeback: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Sorry, I should have guessed by the way you're dressed"'.[4]

A good example of an insult is "Shane Archer thinks Sam Pearson is a tool".

Backhanded compliment

A backhanded compliment, also known as a left handed compliment or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as a compliment. Sometimes, a backhanded compliment may be inadvertent. However, the term usually connotes an intent to belittle or condescend. [5]

A backhanded compliment may fool the listener, but the compliment remains "backhanded" because the speaker is being intentionally slighting and insulting. In some cultures, backhanded compliments are considered a genteel or polite way of expressing disdain.

Examples of backhanded compliments include the following.

  • "You're smarter than you look."
  • "You drive very well, for a woman."
  • "I didn't recognize you; you look so good."

In each instance, there is an initial compliment: praising a person's intellect, a person's driving ability, or a person's looks. However, each instance also includes an implied criticism: the speaker suggests that the person appears unintelligent on the surface; that women don't drive well, and therefore any skill at driving is noteworthy; and that the person at some point looked unattractive.

Sexual

'Verbal insults often take a phallic form. Almost all the really vicious swearwords we can use to hurl abuse at someone are sexual words.......Visual insults follow the same trend'.[6]
Junior school often sees boys 'use sexual swear words and symbolic sexual gestures to unsettle and overtly intimidate girls'.[7] Some sexually pejorative terms are indirect or targeted at one's parents, such as "inbred" or "bastard".

Formal

The flyting was a formalized sequence of literary insults: 'invective or flyting, the literary equivalent of the spell-binding curse, uses similar incantatory devices for opposite reasons, as in Dunbar's Flyting with Kennedy '.[8]

'A little-known survival of the ancient "flytings," or contests-in-insults of the Anglo-Scottish bards, is the type of xenophobic humor once known as "water wit" in which passengers in small boats crossing the Thames...would insult each other grossly, in all the untouchable safety of being able to get away fast'.[9]

Samuel Johnson once triumphed in such an exchange: 'a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, "Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods"'.[10]

Anatomies

Various typologies of insults have been proposed over the years. Desmond Morris, noting that 'almost any action can operate as an Insult Signal if it is performed out of its appropriate context - at the wrong time or in the wrong place' - classes such signals in ten 'basic categories: 1. Disinterest Signals...2. Boredom Signals...3. Impatience Signals...4. Superiority Signals...5. Deformed-compliment Signals...6. Mock-discomfort Signals...7. Rejection Signals....8. Mockery Signals...9. Symbolic Insults...10. Dirt Signals'.[11]

Elizabethans took great interest in such analyses, distinguishing out, for example, the 'fleering frump...when we give a mock with a scornful countenance as in some smiling sort looking aside or by drawing the lip awry, or shrinking up the nose'.[12] Shakespeare himself set up an insult-hierarchy of seven-fold 'degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct'.[13]

Perceptions

Sociologists suggest that insults are often an indicator of flawed reasoning about the character or motivation of others. Though insults are common, and often used in jest, a fundamental axiom of sociology recognizes that derogatory forms of speech make erroneous attributions about the motivation of a person. Scholars classify the erroneous assumptions as the fundamental attribution error.

What qualifies as an insult is also determined both by the individual social situation and by changing social mores. Thus on the one hand the insulting 'obscene invitations of a man to a strange girl can be the spicy endearments of a husband to his wife';[14]

See also

References

Literature

  • Thomas Conley: Toward a rhetoric of insult. University of Chicago Press, 2010, ISBN 0-226-11478-3.
  • Volume 33, Number 3, May 2011, pp. 343-358. Published by Elsevier.
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