Phrase of the day: damn with faint praise

I was chatting to a friend of mine the other day about the school he’s recently started working at. I asked him how it was going there and then tried hard to keep a straight face and not burst out laughing as his answer became less and less enthusiastic with every single sentence he added to it! “Oh, I’m loving it there. It’s great”, he began.  This was then followed by a bit of a pause and then: “Well, it’s OK, at any rate. And I’m sure there are plenty of worse places I could be working, anyway!” As I pointed out, this wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his new place of employment. Rather, he was basically damning the place with faint praise!

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If you damn a thing with faint praise, you say things that are just about positive – and you say them with such a lack of enthusiasm that it’s obvious you don’t think they’re any good! In other words, you express a compliment that’s so feeble that it basically amounts to no compliment at all. Imagine, for example, that last year a friend of yours had a terrible experience at the hairdresser’s and came out with a truly shocking haircut that made them a bit of a laughing stock for a while. You see them again and they’ve had another haircut, this time one that’s slightly less disastrous than the last one. The following conversation could then easily occur.

Oh! You’ve had your hair cut.

> Yeah. What do you reckon? Do you like it?

Yeah. Um . . . it’s . . . um . . . well, it’s much nicer than the last time you had it done.

> Right. I see. So that’s what you think, is it?

No. I didn’t mean it like that.

> Yeah, you did. You’re just damning it with faint praise!

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As with many things, the idea of damning with faint praise can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Almost two thousand years ago, a philosopher called Favorinus observed that faint and half-hearted praise can often be more harmful than loud and persistent abuse. And, of course, there are examples of just this all over the place. I was reading an interview the other day with the president of Encyclopedia Britannica and he was asked about Wikipedia, a site which has obviously had a huge impact on sales of his product. “There’s a big problem”, he noted, “because many users consider Wikipedia to be ‘fine’ or ‘good enough'”! The implication is clearly that a truly reliable source of information should aim to be much much better than simply fine or good enough!

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One final story springs to mind. A foreign friend recently posted on Facebook that a visiting English teacher in her city had praised her level of English (which is remarkable!) and had even said she spoke as well as many natives. I playfully suggested that he was damning her with faint praise, which led to a bit of a misunderstanding as this was taken of a criticism of her as opposed to a criticism of the language level of many natives, which is how it was intended! We got there in the end, and all’s well that ends well. It does show you, though, that even the most fluent speakers can get tripped up when it comes to idiomatic usage – which is obviously something natives like me also need to be aware of!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Check out our face-to-face summer school courses.

  • Can you think of any examples when someone damned something with faint praise? What did they say?
  • Do you agree with Favorinus that damning with faint praise can be worse than harsh criticism?
  • Can you remember a time when you struggled to keep a straight face?
  • Which sites do you think provide the most reliable source of information? And which don’t you trust? Why?
  • Has anyone you know ever had a haircut that made them a bit of a laughing stock?
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