Intentional left-handed compliment but seen as unintentional by the receiver

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New Member

I'll try to explain my question the best I can (my native language is not English).
A left-handed compliment (also known as a back-handed compliment), an insult disguised as a compliment -- Is there a special expression for when the left-handed compliment is intentional (maybe they always are, I don't know), but the the unflattering part of the comment is perceived as unintentional?
For example: a person has really big ears, and someone wants to insult them. They'll say to the person "you are so pretty, I love everything about you, your sexy eyes, your beautiful hair and your cute big ears". The person with big ears feels that the other person meant well when they made the comment, but he/she was embarrassed or insulted as they are sensitive of their big ears. Would there be a special term used to describe this situation, with the fully intentional insult within the compliment is being perceived as unintentional by the receiver, as I believe normally the receiver of a left-handed compliment is aware of the intentional insult within the compliment (or am I wrong here?).
Sorry if the question is confusing, I hope you understand what I mean. Thanks for reading.
  • dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    A left-handed compliment (also known as a back-handed compliment), an insult disguised as a compliment
    Usually I hear the phrase "left-handed compliment" with a different meaning. It is an indirect or weak compliment: at first glance, it doesn't seem like a compliment, but it is one. It's just a weak one, from someone who rarely gives normal compliments. For example: Your paper wasn't as awful as the other students'. That is a left-handed compliment, to me.

    I am less familiar with insults disguised as compliments. I call those "catty remarks" or "fake compliments". But I see that "left-handed compliment" may apply sometimes. The WR dictionary has this as one meaning of "left-handed:

    Left-handed 6. ambiguous or doubtful and often unfavorable or derogatory by implication:a left-handed compliment.

    I am not sure that "an unintentional insult" is possible. If it is not intended as an insult, then it is not an insult. Your example about big ears demonstrates this. If someone is sensitive about their ears, they may misinterpret any mention of their ears as an insult. That is just "miscommunication" or "misunderstanding", which happens every day in all languages.


    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    The receiver of the compliment may or may not be aware that the compliment isn't genuine.

    The person who gives a back-handed compliment may or may not do this intentionally.

    I don't think there's any special term.
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