Faint Praise

What are some allegedly encouraging – or, at least, mildly positive – words that don’t feel so encouraging when offered as personal feedback?



Not, of course, in the sword-wielding, evil-smiting context. Rather, when you’ve taken a creative risk – say, in an audition or performing arts contest – and the judges are looking for another way to say: “What was that?”

A Character
So-and-so told a mutual friend that you’re a ‘character.’ Do you feel heart-warmed or dubious?

When the definition of one word monopolizes an entire column in the Oxford Dictionary, you know it’s bound to elicit mixed feelings. There is the ‘fine’ of fine wine and paintings: ‘of high quality, excellent, of notable merit.’ There is the ‘fine’ of remarkably detailed work: ‘capable of delicate perception.’ There is the ‘fine’ of mediocrity: ‘satisfactory.’ And there is the ‘fine’ of disdain: ‘fastidious, dainty, pretending refinement, affectedly ornate’. ‘Tritely complimentary, euphemistic.’

This is a tough one. It certainly beats being labeled a slacker, but ‘hard-working’ does come with a whiff of: ‘to make up for a lack of talent.’

A favoured filler word when the speaker feels obligated to say something positive, but just can’t. It’s all about the delivery here. The barbed ‘interesting’ is usually preceded by a pause and drawn out syllable by syllable.



A word with 16th century roots. Talkative. An ease with words. But, a little too talkative, and not to be trusted with secrets.

Meant Well
Intentions good, outcome not so good.

We’ve all been to those meetings where one would give anything for a little more reserve. But, here’s a word with edges smooth and sharp. Oxford Dictionary offers: ‘reticent; slow to reveal emotion or opinions; uncommunicative.’ Merriam Webster adds a little more mud to the waters.



Many would consider this a compliment: it’s someone who doesn’t like to spend money. Yet, this is one of those incredibly frustrating, oxymoronic words that leaves people tied in knots. ‘Wait, does that mean I’m spendy or thrifty?’

Look up ‘strong-willed’ online and one of the first results you’ll find: ‘what is a nice way to say stubborn?’ Few of us are itching to be called spineless or weak-willed. Most successful people got that way by battling barriers with their strong wills. But, when delivered in, say, a performance review or report card, ‘strong-willed’ leaves doubts.

That’s So You
Is that a good thing? I mean I might think so, but…

Tries Hard
Not quite bucket list feedback for most.

You did it for the right reasons, too bad you created such a mess.

The sample sentence in Roget’s Thesaurus says it all. ‘We promoted Helga to upstairs maid because of her yeoman work ethic.’ Here’s a half-hearted toast to the person who is more than willing to do tiresome tasks in a ‘workmanlike manner.’



 Photos: Ankhesenamun



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Elizabeth Newton

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