Faint damns, faint praises

On Facebook on the 4th, this charming story from Sally Thomason:

Back in about 1964, when I was in graduate school at Yale, I was moaning and groaning during one of our regular tea-time gatherings about a test I thought I’d blown in Warren Cowgill’s Indo-European class. Warren listened fairly patiently for a bit and then starting saying almost inaudibly, “damn damn damn damn damn damn.” I stopped complaining and asked him what on earth he was doing. “I’m praising you with faint damns,” he said. — Fast forward to today: Rich [Thomason, Sally’s husband] just showed me p. 206 of a fantasy novel he’s reading, Point of Hopes, by Melissa Scott & Lisa A. Barnett: “That Rathe seemed to think well of him, or at least to praise him with faint damns, was something of a reassurance…”. Probably the authors weren’t plagiarizing from Warren, because I know they weren’t in the Linguistics tea room on the third floor of the Hall of Graduate Studies in 1964. (Probably Warren wasn’t the first person to have said this either, of course. But this is only the second time I’ve heard it.)

I noted this an inversion of damning with faint praise and suggested that it was older that Warren Cowgill’s use. (I also missed Warren, who died in 1985.) Now some details.

The model is indeed damning with faint praise. From Wikipedia:

Damning with faint praise is an English idiom for words that effectively condemn by seeming to offer praise which is too moderate or marginal to be considered praise at all. In other words, this phrase identifies the act of expressing a compliment so feeble that it amounts to no compliment at all, or even implies a kind of condemnation.

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

The explicit phrasing of the modern English idiomic expression was first published by Alexander Pope in his 1734 poem, “Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot” in Prologue to the Satires.

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.

The inversion is in fact pretty venerable. Google pulls up a number of early 20th-century quotes, including one from G. K. Chesterton; I’m not citing these, because the Google search quotes are (now) famously unreliable as to metadata. Recent quotes are easy to find, for example, on the First Things First blog, “Do Not Praise With Faint Damns” by John Mark Reynolds (Nov. 2011).

Meanwhile, Habla Lab (Human Abilities in Bilingual Language Acquisition Lab at The University of Texas at Austin) supplied, via Facebook, a Google Ngram on faint damns, which appears first around 1870, with a huge spike in the early 1990s, peaking in the 1920s, then damping down to a moderate number in 1980-2000.

None of this reproduces Warren’s very faint repetition of damn, which is delicious.

One Response to “Faint damns, faint praises”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    How about fainting with praiseworthy damns (or damned praise).

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