A boss of mine once gave me this "compliment" in my annual evaluation:

Nous lui avons confié des tâches simples, qu'il a réussi à accomplir.

In English we call this "damning with faint praise", and, considering my grade, please take my word for it that it is faint praise.

Is there an equally juteuse phrase in French? Something worthy of Hugo, or Zola, perhaps?

  • 1
    Also, if it helps the search, consider the similar backhanded compliment.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Jan 10 '18 at 12:14
  • Maybe des compliments mesurés.
    – jlliagre
    Jan 10 '18 at 13:28
  • If you think your boss was taking this opportunity to [kindly/creatively] say something nice in spite of the [apparent] simplicity of your duties, then something like jlliagre’s “compliments measurés” would seem appropriate, but if s/he was more concerned w/[unkindly] insulting the simple nature of your duties (albeit while thinly veiling/masking/hiding that insult), then maybe Lambie’s suggestion would be better (or a translation of “veiled/masked/hidden insult,” such as “insulte/injure/critique [à peine] voilée/cachée/masquée” (Not sure if any of these would be idiomatic, hence the comment).
    – Papa Poule
    Jan 10 '18 at 16:10
  • @Papa Poule Do you mean idiomatic or idioms?
    – Lambie
    Jan 10 '18 at 16:23
  • @Lambie What I meant was "([I'm] not sure if any of these would be [something that a native French speaker would say])." And to clarify my parenthetical even further, what I meant by "any of these" was "any of my suggestions (i.e., “insulte/injure/critique [à peine] voilée/cachée/masquée”), for I was not questioning at all the "idiomacy" (idiomatic quality, idiomaticity?) of either jlliagre's or your good (and presumably idiomatic) suggestions.
    – Papa Poule
    Jan 10 '18 at 16:38

Complimentaillerie is a word that might fit the bill. It is defined in Le Trésor de la langue française as pejorative, and as a compliment that is more like a mockery than praise. It is not very juteux, but it was still worthy of Verlaine’s attention:

Parbleu ! je sais bien qu’on peut, qu’on va, sans doute me dire : « Comment vous ! le créateur subtil de rythmes, le rimeur rusé s’il en fut » — et telles et telles complimentailleries plus ou moins, plutôt moins, sincères — « vous venez nous préconiser ces vers pour la plupart médiocrement rimés et d’une allure parfois maladroite, gauche » — et tous les et cœtera [sic] de partisans, au fonds et au tréfonds, de mauvaise foi, d’une impossible impeccabilité.

— Paul VERLAINE, Œuvres posthumes

There is also a very common phrase in Quebec, though it appears to be specific to this region, that states...

Après les fleurs, le pot !

The flowers are the praises, and they are usually (figuratively) thrown at the people we praise (compare with jeter des fleurs à quelqu’un). The flowerpot is then also expected to be thrown, causing a bit more damage and discomfort.

I am not familiar with the usage of “to damn with a faint praise”, so I am unsure if its mechanism involves any further developments after the faint praise. If it is the case, then “après les fleurs, le pot !” could work. If not, then it could be possible to modify it slightly, and people (at least in Quebec) would notice the link with the expression. Possibly something along these lines:

  • Après ces maigres fleurs, je n’attendrai pas (je n’ai pas attendu) qu’on me lance le pot !
  • Avec ces fleurs fanées, on devine l’arrivée du pot !

Since you were also looking for something Hugo or Zola might have said, one could consider quoting Baudelaire, and replace “ces maigres fleurs” or “ces fleurs fanées” with “ces fleurs maladives”

Among many many other funny one liners, the writer and humorist Robert Lassus offered his own twist on the expression être dans la fleur de l’âge, which usually expresses the peak years of one’s life, before the decline begins.

Je suis dans la fleur d’un âge qui commence à sentir le chrysanthème.

Here, the chrysanthemum represents death, following the very strong symbolism this flower has in some European countries, including France & Belgium (and therefore in the French language in general).

Though unattested,

  • Le patron m’a lancé des fleurs ! Des chrysanthèmes ! or
  • Le patron m’a jeté un bouquet de chrysanthèmes.

would carry the sense of ending conveyed by the damnation part of the English expression, as well as the praise part (through “lancer des fleurs”), and I believe it would be well understood.

One possible downside of such an expression is that it could make people smile, because it is unusual and somewhat unexpected, whereas the English original is a cemented expression that has a set form and can be used without any type of sarcasm, even though it describes a sarcastic behaviour.

In order to familiarize myself with the expression, I looked around and found the following discussion about an extract of Jane Austen’s Emma:

First a quote from the source:

[Mrs Elton] had a little beauty and a little accomplishment, but so little judgment that she thought herself coming with superior knowledge of the world, to enliven and improve a country neighbourhood...

Then a discussion about the repetition of “little”:

The effect here is clear: the two first occurrences are contained in a concessive construction, granting Mrs Elton at least a modicum of positive characteristics, before the final “little”, modified by “so”, reveals the true purpose of the first two occurrences: to damn with faint praise.

This example is clearly a sober use of the expression, and everything I suggested so far has been mostly to express one’s disarray about receiving such a treatment, not about discussing it from an external perspective. They are not necessarily inappropriate, since as far as I know French doesn’t have a clear absolute translation of the expression, and therefore we can vary the translation depending on the context, but none of them would really work here.

“Complimentaillerie” is way too sarcastic to translate the sentence.

Similarly, we could easily dismiss “Après les fleurs, le pot !”, though it is a fixed expression that could be used in other contexts, as having the wrong grammatical structure and being hard to put as a linking feature between two parts of a sentence.

And as far as “on lui a jeté un bouquet de chrysanthèmes” goes, it is probably a little too exotic and arguably a bit too weak. So for this specific instance, I would suggest considering yet another possible translation:

L’effet ici est clair : on utilise deux fois « peu » sur le mode de la concession, conférant à Mrs Elton au moins un soupçon de traits positifs, avant d’asséner ce « si peu », qui révèle la véritable intention des deux premières itérations : fleurir le tombeau qu’on lui prépare.

  • 1
    Une véritable boutique dans une seule réponse. Comment puis-je dire non à ca?
    – ssimm
    Jan 17 '18 at 11:48
  • 1
    Je ne sais pas combien de fois j'ai pensé à de pacotilles pour traduire des trucs comme ça... au final peut-être qu'on laisse un peu de côté le damn, la composante verbale après tout. Le tout dernier exemple lui a ce truc verbal. Aucune idée si c'était davantage l’hypocrisie ou le manque de respect, ou une idée comme le sarcasme avec l'idée de conformité à une norme minimale. Ouais tout mettre ça ensemble c'est difficile, souvent ça donne une phrase avec des compléments plus élaborés. Une lecture bien intéressante ! Merci !
    – user3177
    Jan 21 '18 at 6:28
  • @onvousaouï Compliment de pacottille (ou avec variation sur le substantif choisi) est tellement une bonne idée, mais elle m’a complètement échappé. Vous devriez vraiment en faire une réponse! Jan 21 '18 at 16:58
  • 1
    Au final on discute peu comment on manie le verbe avec les pacotilles pour ainsi dire, et donc je sais pas. Ds. Wik. l'explication apparaît avec to provide, ou ds. un contexte en incise d'un autre verbe, genre he mentionned, damning.... Mais donc c'est quoi au net la sémantique de l'idiome avec le verbe et quel rôle y joue ce to damn. C'est plus largement se moquer ou c'est admettre du bout des lèvres, ou je sais pas trop comment dire, un semblant de qualité par dérision. Le to damn ajoute-il qqc. de proverbial à tout ça etc. je sais pas. P.-ê que je vais allumer un moment donné. Merci !
    – user3177
    Jan 23 '18 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.