Damning with faint praise

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Damning with faint praise is an English idiom, expressing oxymoronically that half-hearted or insincere praise may act as oblique criticism or condemnation.[1][2] In simpler terms, praise is given, but only given as high as mediocrity, which may be interpreted as passive-aggressive.

History of the term[edit]

The concept can be found in the work of the Hellenistic sophist and philosopher Favorinus (c. 110 CE) who observed that faint and half-hearted praise was more harmful than loud and persistent abuse.[3]

The explicit phrasing of the modern English idiomatic expression was first published by Alexander Pope in his 1734 poem, "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" in Prologue to the Satires.[4]

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
— "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" by Alexander Pope (1688–1744)[5]

According to William Shepard Walsh, "There is a faint anticipation in William Wycherley's Double Dealer, "and libels everybody with dull praise," But a closer parallel is in Phineas Fletcher, —"

When needs he must, yet faintly then he praises,
Somewhat the deed, much more the means he raises:
So marreth what he makes, and praising most, dispraises.
— "The Purple Island" by Phineas Fletcher[6]

The inversion "praising with faint damns" is a more modern coinage,[7] though it certainly goes as far back as 1888.[8]

The concept was widely used in literature in the eighteenth century, for example in Tobias Smollet's Roderick Random - "I impart some of mine to her - am mortified at her faint praise".


"They wrote that 'Our readers report that they find some merit in your story, but not enough to warrant its acceptance'."
A professor is writing a testimonial about a pupil who is a candidate for a philosophy job, and his letter reads as follows: "Dear Sir, Mr. X's command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc."[9]
"… [Cauz] said a big problem was that many users considered Wikipedia to be 'fine' or 'good enough'."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ichikawa, Sanki. (1964). The Kenkyusha Dictionary of Current English Idioms, pp. 153–154.
  2. ^ Ammer, Christine. (2001). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, p. 153.
  3. ^ Walsh, William Shepard. (1908). The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations from the Literature of the World, p. 586, citing Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae. xi, 3, 1.
  4. ^ Walsh, William Shepard. (1909). Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, p. 211.
  5. ^ Pope, Alexander. (1901) The Rape of the Lock: An Essay on Man and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, p. 97; n.b., see line 201 in "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot."
  6. ^ Walsh, William Shepard, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities,pp. 211–212; n.b., see Canto vii in "The Purple Island."
  7. ^ Example: Hattie, John and Peddie, R. (January 2003). "School reports: "Praising with faint damns"". Set: Research Information for Teachers. 3: 4–9. doi:10.18296/set.0710.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Robert Ellis Thompson; Wharton Barker (1888). The American: A National Journal. American Company, Limited. p. 137.
  9. ^ Grice, H. P. (1975), Logic and conversation (PDF)


  • Ammer, Christine. (1997). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-395-72774-4; OCLC 228041670
  • Browne, William Hardcastle. (1900). Odd Derivations of Words, Phrases, Slang, Synonyms and Proverbs. Philadelphia: Arnold. OCLC 23900443
  • Hirsch, Eric Donald Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett and James S. Trefil. (2002). The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-618-22647-4; ISBN 978-0-9657664-3-2; OCLC 50166721
  • Ichikawa, Sanki. (1964). The Kenkyusha Dictionary of Current English Idioms. Tokyo: Kenkyusha. OCLC 5056712
  • Pope, Alexander and Henry Walcott Boynton. (1901). The Rape of the Lock. An essay on Man and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co. OCLC 3147633
  • Walsh, William Shepard. (1892). Handy-book of Literary Curiosities. Philadelphia: Lippincott.OCLC 247190584
  • __________. (1908). The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations from the Literature of the World. Toronto: C. Clark. OCLC 22391024

External links[edit]