June 22nd, 2016 .

Phropish Hypocrisy

Pat Morden

I think we can agree that English is a strange language with many subtle complexities. (Perhaps that’s why I’m in such awe of people who learn it as a second or third language.)  One of those subtleties – which you won’t find in most grammar guides – is phrases that mean exactly the opposite of what they say.

My favourite example is, “I don’t disagree but . . .” Yes, I know it sounds like a simple double negative, and therefore means “I agree.” But don’t fool yourself. When someone says it to you, she is about to reduce your opinions to dust. Believe me, you will squirm.

Another one I love is “With all due respect . . .” Again, be prepared: you are about to hear words of withering contempt.

Turns out I’m not the only one fascinated by these verbal hypocrisies. Mr. Google tells me that Sir Arnold Lunn, one-time literary editor of The Times, created the term phrop in 1950, blending phrase and opposite. American journalist Sydney J. Harris spoke of compiling a dictionary of phrops in one column, but as far as I can tell, never completed the task.

Here are few more good ones:

  • “I don’t like to boast but . . .”
  • “I have nothing against him but . . .”
  • “It really isn’t any of my business but. . .”
  • “Not to change the subject but . . .”
  • “I’m only thinking of you when I . . . ”
  • “Now don’t change your plans on my account but . . . ”

Should we be horrified by the hypocrisy implicit in these sneaky little phrases? Harris obviously disliked them, writing, “I have long noticed that whenever people want to hurt others, and gratify themselves, they begin with a mealy-mouthed phrase.” But Sir Arnold himself had a different perspective. In a 1952 article in the New Yorker, he was quoted as saying, “Not that I would do away with phrops. I think they’re part of civilization.”

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