Ceremonious compliments

The definition of the Oxford English Dictionary describes “compliment” as “a ceremonial act or expression as a tribute of courtesy, ‘usually understood to mean less than it declares’”, before it goes on to define Present-day compliments as “neatly-turned remark addressed to any one, implying or involving praise”. Historical material, especially of the seventeenth and eighteenth century provides a lot of evidence for compliments that correspond to the opening definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary. Following Taavitsainen and Jucker forthc. and Taavitsainen and Jucker 2008, I use the term “ceremonious compliments” for these, in contrast to Present-day personal compliments.

Beetz (1990, 1999) analyses such ceremonious compliments in the Old German empire. He describes them as follows.

The term compliment as used in the Old German empire indicates its French origin in its spelling, pronunciation and above all in its meaning. It does not only signify a compliment as we understand the word today, but is a far more comprehensive term embracing oral, written and even non-verbal interaction rituals for everyday and ceremonious communication situations. For example we may list here greetings and farewells, congratulations and condolence, requests and thanks, all forms of initiating and maintaining contact such as introducing oneself and others, regards, recommendations, invitations, announcements, invitations to dance, good wishes, promises, offers of service, presentations, apologies; even “reprimand compliments” are not considered to be a contradiction in terms. (Beetz 1999: 142)
The examples in (1) to (3) are taken from early newspapers. They are taken from the Zurich English Newspaper Corpus (ZEN).
(1) Tis believed the Pope will order him to compliment the Duke of Mantoua upon his late Marriage with the Princess of Guastala. (ZEN lgz0051, 1671)
(2) The Swiss Cantons have no formal Notice as yet given them; of the Duke of Anjou's Accession to the Throne of Spain, so that they have time enough to bethink themselves concerning the Compliment of Congratulation. (ZEN fpt 0088, 1701)
(3) Prince Lewis of Baden arrived here on the 12th instant, and has received the compliments of the General Officers, and other Persons of Quality. (ZEN pmn 00859, 1701)
These early newspapers report ceremonial acts. The Duke of Mantua is congratulated on his marriage (extract 1), the Duke of Anjou is congratulated on his accession the throne of Spain and Prince Lewis of Baden is officially welcomed on a visit to Vienna. In all cases, the compliments are official and ceremonial acts of diplomacy, and they certainly correspond to the OED description that they are paid as a “tribute to courtesy”.

Extracts (4) to (6) are taken from Matthew Lewis’ Gothic novel The Monk, first published in 1796. They also illustrate “ceremonial acts”.

(4) The old Lady with many expressions of gratitude, but without much difficulty, accepted the offer, and seated herself:  The young one followed her example, but made no other compliment than a simple and graceful reverence. (The Monk, p. 10)
(5) His Cell was thronged by the Monks, anxious to express their concern at his illness; And He was still occupied in receiving their compliments on his recovery, when the Bell summoned them to the Refectory. (The Monk, p. 84)
(6) The marriage was therefore celebrated as soon as the needful preparations had been made, for the Marquis wished to have the ceremony performed with all possible splendour and publicity. This being over, and the Bride having received the compliments of Madrid, She departed with Don Raymond for his Castle in Andalusia,  (The Monk, p. 418)
In (4) the compliment does not even involve words. It is a compliment of thanks by a young lady who, together with her older companion, has been offered seats in a church. The compliments described in (5) are good wishes received after a recovery from illness. The actual words of these compliments are not given. They may, of course, involve praise for the recovery and as such they are in an obvious way related to the personal compliment. In (6), finally, Don Raymond receives the congratulations of “Madrid” on his marriage. “Madrid” presumably refers to the dignitaries and noble people of Madrid. The compliments described in (4) and (5) take place in private contexts, whereas the compliment in (6), like those reported by the newspapers in (1) to (3), take place in a public context.

The extracts (1) to (3) have been retrieved by a search for the term “compliment” in the ZEN corpus (Field – Corpus: SAV). Extracts (4) to (6) by a combination of the philological method (Patterns – Field – Philological) and a corpus search in the Project Gutenberg.

For other types of compliments see: