Backhanded compliment and left-handed compliment are two versions of an idiom. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom backhanded compliment or left-handed compliment, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.
A backhanded compliment, also known as a left-handed compliment, is a remark that on its surface seems to convey admiration, though it is also an insult. An example: “You’re so brave to wear that dress.” While the remark is supposed to be taken as a compliment, the implication is that the dress does not look very good on you. Another example: “You have such a pretty face.” Though he is praising your face, the speaker implies that the rest of you is not very appealing. The term left-handed compliment came into use in the 1600s from the fact that the left hand has always been considered sinister. The term backhanded compliment came into use in the 1800s. Today, the idiom backhanded compliment is by far the more popular of the two phrases. Note that backhanded is not hyphenated, but left-handed is hyphenated.
After venturing to the Ayungin Shoal to see and report on how Filipino fishermen were coping amid China’s incursions into Philippine territory, ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano and her crew did not deserve the left-handed compliment initially dealt them by the spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. (Inquirer)
Yes, the article was glowing in its praise of Sarasota, but the editors seemingly were unable to resist a final left-handed compliment after talking about its great food. (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Though encased in a chorus of anti-Bama fervor, Conner Smith’s single actually unfolds as a backhanded compliment to the ponderous phenomenon of Alabama football, especially during its ongoing Nick Saban dynasty. (Tuscaloosa News)
Fey aimed a perfect backhanded compliment at The Trial of the Chicago 7 honoree Aaron Sorkin: “He can have seven men talking, but it feels like 100 men talking.” (Time Magazine)