Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paying a Compliment

Isn’t it strange how the idiom we use most often when talking about compliments is “to pay a compliment”?

Not “to give...” or “to make...” or even “to send a compliment”, but “to pay a compliment”.

Ever since feudal times, the word ‘pay’ has meant to give something that is due to the recipient, and is derived from the Medieval Latin verb 'pacare' meaning "to settle, or satisfy". Nowadays, the word pay is most commonly used in the context of money - to pay what is owed, to settle a debt, but in feudal times, someone of lesser social stature would be expected to ‘pay’ homage to their feudal superiors. Homage was a solemn promise of allegiance, a social transaction, pledging loyalty and access to resources in exchange for protection and an acknowledgement of the underling's position in society.

By the 16th century, the feudal system was ebbing away, replaced by the new bureaucracies and the emerging civil society. In this age, social status was more flexible, and a new world of manners and ways of expressing respect was being formulated. Our word compliment comes from the Italian ‘complimento’, meaning “an expression of respect and civility". It seems Samuel Johnson was rather more cynical, defining a compliment in his landmark 1755 English dictionary as "an act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares". Though he may have been sarcastically commenting on the eternally precarious fine line between true compliments and inauthentic flattery.

Thus mini-ceremonies of manners and courtesy, like bowing, doffing hats and unsolicited praise, came to replace the solemn rituals of feudal homage. But the verb of acknowledging social rank remained the same: compliments, like homage, continued to be paid.
That we use the same language to talk about compliments as about money is not especially surprising. In 2008, a Japanese team at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences investigated what part of the brain was stimulated when people learnt someone had said something nice about them. It turned out to be the striatum, the same region stimulated when we gain something of monetary value.

So now you know; when someone pays you a compliment, and you feel richer for it, it’s because psychologically we consider social esteem as valuable as money. So next time you give a gift, make sure you say something nice to the recipient too. Those heartfelt words are more valuable than you think.

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