Compliments these days are an abused lot—most often made into workhorses for our ego’s social calculations or unwitting vessels of our subconscious and its discontents. People compliment to be passive aggressive, to kiss ass, to convey a sexual interest. Or worse, people compliment when something is such a surprise to them that they have to compensate. (“Oh my god, look how good you look…”) This bastardization equates complimenting with flattery, and allows us to write off the beauty of a sincere compliment as just so much ephemera.
Etymology-wise, flattery is Middle English in origin, an adaptation of the French word flatterie and a form of flatteur, meaning “to smooth down by caressing.” A good dictionary will have its definition as “false or insincere praise; adulation; blandishment; a gratifying delusion.” For the most part, flattery is control, or an attempt to control, through guile. It is, as Disraeli noted, the destruction of all good fellowship.
Complimenting, though also an adaptation of a French word, complimenter, refers to something much more ritualistic than flattery’s base game of gettin’ by givin’. As a “ceremonial act or expression of tribute” and something done “to praise,” complimenting offers the possibility of articulating and recognizing beauty. If done right, it is a moment of love – a temporal exchange that elicits poetry from the Complimentor and an overpowering sense of self-uniqueness in the Complimentee.