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In the Captain Marvel series (the one with Rick Jones, not the one with Billy Batson) the titular character is a humanoid alien trying to do good on Earth. Rick, bonded to Marvel, teaches him a new battle cry. "Oh Watta Goo Siam"note "Oh, what a goose I am.". Captain Marvel took some time to get it. About a year later, Marvel went insane and destroyed the entire universe, but that was probably unrelated.
In V for Vendetta, the gangster, Ally is hired by the new police chief, Creedy.
Ally: Yer predecessor, Mr Almond wouldna' have had time fer a man like me, a verra superior man, Mr Almond. Now you sir, you're not superior. Quite the reverse, in fact.
In the comic and film versions of 300, Leonidas and the remaining Spartans are surrounded by Xerxes' army after they were betrayed by the Spartan Ephialtes. Leonidas tells him, "May you live forever" before taking his last stand. This phrase may sound oddly complimentary until you realize that living forever in Spartan culture, as opposed to dying gloriously in battle, is a dishonorable fate.
Gull: You realize that I only share these private thoughts with you in recognition of your lack of cognizance? Netley: Why—thank you, sir. I can't say what that means to me. Gull: Ha ha ha! Of COURSE you can't. That is precisely why I trust you.
Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic, Amy and Mecha Sally has Fiona attempting to prove to Elias and Nicole that she didn't come to New Mobotropolis to pick a fight with Mecha Sally, who has regain her free will. She then hits her to see no damage so her point is proven.
Fiona: See? Sugar-Queen is indestructible. In other words, she's numb.
In Love and Loss, when Kurenai questions the idea that Naruto would attack a fellow Konoha villager if something happened to his daughter, Naruto responds that she should wait until she's a parent. Then if she can honestly say she wouldn't kill anyone who harmed her child, regardless of where they're from, he'll admit she's a better shinobi than him, leaving it all but unsaid that she'd be a far worse parent.
In Weres Harry Harry comes up with a rather nice one when he gets fed up with a social gathering Padma Patil drags him to during his first year at Hogwarts.
Harry:I apologize for my interruption of this most prestigious of gatherings. I am afraid my manners are not on the level of a gathering such as this. Ms. Patil merely wished for me to see for myself the society that my parents and I sacrificed so much in defending. I am pleased to say in this she succeeded admirably. And now if you would excuse me?
The Sultan insults himself in a very subtle way. He is wondering why his daughter Jasmine can't choose a suitor to marry, then adds 'Her mother wasn't nearly so picky.' It may take the audience a little while to notice the self-deprecation.
When Aladdin decided to visit Jasmine and play up the prince charade, he struck an arrogant pose and asked the Genie "How do I look?" The Genie, who had just tried to convince Aladdin to stop pretending to be a prince, replied "Like... a prince."
When Jafar is praising Iago on his plan to marry Jasmine and eventually bump her and the Sultan off: "I love the way your foul little mind works!" Note the way he pinches his fingers together when he says "little".
In Disney's The Jungle Book, Bagheera delivers a sharp one when Baloo is trying to make himself look like someone who can be trusted to raise Mowgli.
Baloo: I'll learn him all I know!
Bagheera: Well, that shouldn't take too long.
In Disney's The Emperors New Groove, Kronk remarks that one would think Kuzco would have turned out better, in response to Yzma stating that she "practically raised him." It's not entirely certain if Kronk even intended this to be an insult, given that he's Dumb Muscle.
Whitey (Davey's caretaker): Now I assume you've done your pre-game warm-ups. Davey Stone: No, let me do them right now. [Hold up his fists, raises and lowers his middle fingers] One, two, three, four... Whitey: [oblivious] That's good, but don't forget your hammies.
In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Belle tells Gaston that he's "positively primeval", but says it in a light enough voice that he thinks she's complimenting him. It doesn't help that he's ignorant enough to not know what "primeval" means. Later, when she's trying to diplomatically kick him out of her house, she says "I just don't deserve you!" Bonus in the musical adaptation, where he responds to the line with "Who does?"
Films — Live-Action
In the comedy film Liar Liar, Jim Carrey's character, who has been cursed to tell the truth for one day, is forced to tell his coworkers exactly what he thinks of them (not very complimentary thoughts, to say the least), but manages to save himself from disaster by affecting a mocking tone of voice, thus convincing his coworkers that his insults are only outrageous jokes.
Judge Smails: They tell me you're the man to beat this year, and, well, I'm no slouch myself... Ty: Oh, don't sell yourself short, Judge. You're a tremendous slouch.
In Zodiac the suspected Zodiac Killer is questioned by the police. As he leaves, he flatly tells the officers that he looks forward to the day when policemen are no longer referred to as pigs.
Quo Vadis has Petronius, who spends the entire film secretly snarking off to Nero of all people. His crowning moment comes during the Great Fire of Rome, when Nero worries that his song won't be epic enough to match the moment, Petronius serves him with this line:
Petronius: I am sure you will be worthy of the spectacle.... as the spectacle is worthy of you.
Spock's goodbye "salute" to the Vulcan Science Academy in the new Star Trek movie, which can basically be translated as, "Live long and fuck you." It was a fairly appropriate response.
In School of Rock, after Ms. Mullins berates Freddy for not being in accordance with the school's dress code (he was styling himself as a punk), Frankie says "Ms. Mullins, you're the Man." She responds "Why, thank you, Frankie", not realizing that he was referring to the phrase "stick it to the Man", i.e. he called her an oppressive authority. Dewey had taught the class about "The Man" early on.
Amadeus, and Mozart's reaction to Salieri's music. "I never knew that music like that was possible." And, "One hears such sounds, and what can one say but... Salieri?", two sentences designed not to purposely say anything good.
In Men In Black, Zed says "Congratulations, you're everything we've come to expect from years of government training." J also scratches his forehead with his middle finger after K states he has to "grow up" before he can get a Neuralyser.
At one point, when J is arguing with a skeptical (and overweight) cop, the officer says "You're not half the man I am!". J's response: "I am half the man you are".
In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Kim gets to do quite a few of these, notably flipping off her contract manager by using her middle finger to scratch under her eye.
Tugg Speedman: There were times while I was playing Jack where I felt...retarded. Like, really retarded. Kirk Lazarus: Damn! Tugg Speedman: In a weird way I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that is was okay to be stupid or dumb. Kirk Lazarus: To be a moron. Tugg Speedman: Yeah! Kirk Lazarus: To be moronical. Tugg Speedman: Exactly, to be a moron. Kirk Lazarus: An imbecile. Tugg Speedman: Yeah! Kirk Lazarus: Like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. Tugg Speedman: [pause] When I was playing the character.
Maggie Smith plays a shrewish lady in Gosford Park who is a master at these. In one instance, she "compliments" a cash-strapped woman for wearing the same dress over multiple days, saying that she's delightfully economical.
Sybill Trelawney: Everything went pitch black and the next thing I knew, I was being hurled headfirst out of the Room!
Harry Potter: And you didn't see that coming?
From Ella Enchanted, Ella gets one over her thicker-than-bricks stepfamily:
"What a clever daughter I have," Olga beamed at Hattie.
"As clever as she is beautiful," [Ella] said.
They both began to answer me, and then stopped, confused.
"Hattie isn't pretty," said Olive.
Sherlock Holmes gets one of these on Inspector Gregson after noting that the pathway outside of the murder scene has been so trampled over by the police that any clues are now impossible to make out: "With two such men as yourself and Lestrade upon the ground, there will not be much for a third party to find out." This goes completely over the head of Gregson, who assumes that Holmes is complimenting him on the thoroughness of his investigation.
He does many of these throughout the canon, but one particularly ballsy was targeted towards the King of Bohemia.
King of Bohemia:(Talking about Irene Adler) What a woman – oh, what a woman! Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level? Holmes: From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.
Also in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" towards his own client.
Holmes: I'll give you one. This case is quite sufficiently complicated to start with without the further difficulty of false information. Client: Meaning that I lie. Holmes: Well, I was trying to express it as delicately as I could, but if you insist upon the word I will not contradict you.
In "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier"—one of only two cases narrated by Holmes himself—he even takes a pot-shot at Watson, although in this case, he might not mean it as poorly as it comes off sounding. note Given Holmes' distaste for the tendency of the professional police to jump to conclusions, it might even have been meant as a sincere, if quite barbed, compliment.
"A confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate."
An intercultural example: in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar, the main character pretends to be impressed by a lousy Persian court poet, so much that he compares him to "the excellent Count Khvostov", a legendarily, memetically awful Russian poet.
Warrior Cats is good with these: in the later books of the series, most Gatherings consist almost entirely of the Clans taking jabs at each other in this manner.
"I am pleased to hear that you are getting so much use out of a piece of land prey-poor by ThunderClan standards."
In Discworld, even though Vetinari and Vimes are in a position to insult people straightforwardly, their insults often confuse people, sometimes because the insults are clever and sometimes because the people being insulted are just thick. Jingo has this example:
Sgt. Colon: I know something about seaweed, sir.
Vetinari: You do?
Sgt. Colon: Yes! When it's wet, that means it's going to rain!
Vetinari: I shall never forget you said that.
Colon's response is to walk away proudly thinking that he's "Made a Contribution", when Vetinari probably meant he would never forget its monumental stupidity.
Vimes does it to Wide-Eyed Idealist Reg Shoe throughout Night Watch. Eventually, he pushes it far enough that Reg catches on. (The setup is that Reg is trying to ration out the beseiged Republic's food and, to his disappointment, Vimes has just pointed out they don't need to ration the food, because they have most of the food in the city):
Vimes: But I'll tell you what, if this goes on, the city will see to it the deliveries come in by other gates. We’ll be hungry then. That’s when we’ll need your organizational skills.
Reg: You mean we'll be in a famine situation?
Vimes: If we aren't, Reg, I'm sure you could organise one.
In The Wee Free Men, one of the traveling teachers condescendingly complements Tiffany on knowing the word "zoology":
Teacher: That's a big word, isn't it? Tiffany: No it isn't, actually. "Patronizing" is a big word, "zoology" is really quite short.
Carrot Ironfounderson is either a deft master at this trope, or a sincerely well-meaning speaker who only accidentally says things like "If it [the Fools' Guild] burns to the ground, it'll be a blow for entertainment in this city."
In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot gets one in at Hastings: "We must be so intelligent that [the murderer] does not suspect us of being intelligent at all. There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me."
It's made even more hilarious by Hastings' follow-up narration.
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
Bertie: "The impression I retain after hearing you shoot it at me a couple of times is that you consider me to be talking through the back of my neck, and that only a feudal sense of what is fitting restrains you from substituting for it the words 'Says you!'"
Fisk: I never work. If you're clever you don't have to. Are you a hard worker, Mrs. Trimmer?
Mrs. Trimmer: That I am, and an honest woman to boot.
In one of the Captain Underpants books, an obnoxious student named Melvin gains superpowers and takes on the name of "Big Melvin". He declares that whenever he has halted a crime, he'll use his laser vision to scorch the initials "B.M." in large print, so people will know it was him. Cue George snarking that "Big BMs always made me think of Melvin!"
Most of the conversations Odd Thomas has with villains are comprised of him doing these.
King Joffery: [Sansa's] stupid brother is calling himself a king.
Tyrion: All kinds of people are calling themselves kings these days.
In the final Animorphs book, Jake contacts the Andalite fleet, who intend to quarantine Earth in hopes of killing the evil Yeerks there too. Unfortunately for the Andalites, Jake's message is also being broadcasted to their civilian nets, meaning both sides have to keep up the appearance of peace. Jake responds with some carefully worded statements (which Marco ever-so-helpfully translates for the reader).
"We must set aside the necessary ruthlessness of war... and turn to the more satisfying duties of making peace." Translation: Your civilians who are watching this broadcast now are going to be really upset if you decide to rush in and annihilate us when we're offering peace.
"Our victory could have never occurred without the help of our Andalite friends." Translation: You did squat for us, but we're willing to share the credit just to make you look nice. Grateful?
"We have [learned] so much from the great Elfangor and his no less courageous brother Axmili." Translation: If your ship attacks anyway, you'll end up killing Elfangor's hero brother aboard this ship and undoing all their hard work.
Older Than Feudalism: "Rex" (Latin for "king") was a huge insult according to the Romans, but many of the societies that they conquered (such as Judea) had much higher opinions of kings. For example, "Rex Iudaeorum" ("King of the Jews") was the biggest insult (by Roman standards) that Pontius Pilate could throw at Jesus in The Four Gospels, but the insult was lost on the native Jews. In fact, the chief priests' main objection to Jesus being given that label was that it was too big of a compliment to him.
Composer Ziller in The Culture novel Look to Windward sometimes amuses himself by doing this, although normally his criticisms of Culture society are more direct (since the incessant politeness of the Culture is one of the things that gets on his nerves). At one point a rather foolish Culture citizen named Treslen Scofford attempts to jog his memory by reminding him that, when Treslen had commented on one of his compositions, Ziller had called the comments "singular" and "uniquely viewpointed". Ziller acknowledges that this certainly sounds like something he'd have said.
On House Of Buggin, one sketch has a crew of mariachis insulting their monolingual English-speaking customers in Spanish under the guise of serenading them until, of course, they run into some customers who also speak fluent Spanish. While most of their insults are translated for us in the subtitles, this piece comes with a further Bilingual Bonus or two as well for actual Spanish-speakers' further amusement. (Translated: "Miserable barato..." Not translated: "...pendejo!")
In All in the Family, Lionel Jefferson would do this to Archie Bunker to trump Archie's racist comments. In one case, after Archie made a stereotypical comment about black people living crowded in small quarters, Lionel "explained" that they have special efficient storage closets to shove their things into, and that Archie should get one to "shove yours". After he left, Archie realized that "you could take that two ways"; in response, "Meathead" joined the stealth insult game by assuring him that Lionel "only meant it one way".
Sammy Davis Jr. also told one to Archie: "If you were prejudiced, you'd go around thinking that you were better than everyone else in the world. But after spending these wonderful moments with you, Archie, I can honestly say - you ain't better than anybody."
In an episode of The Golden Girls, Dorothy's ex husband Stan is staying with the women to recover from a heart attack. However, he's afraid of being alone and fakes a relapse. The following is paraphrased:
Blanche: Isn't it funny that you would have a relapse on the day that the doctor said you could go home? Stan: What can I say, the heart's a funny organ. Blanche: I bet a lot of your organs get a laugh.
One of the ways Never Mind the Buzzcocks can insult its guests, but still get stars who take themselves seriously to appear on the show. For instance, after Preston walked out when Simon Amstell innocently read out sections of his wife's book:
Simon Amstell: I only read his wife's book, I can't believe that upset him... I mean, then again, I've read the whole thing and it upset me.
Caligula: Do you think I'm mad? Claudius: Mad? Why your majesty, you set the standard of sanity for the entire world!
You better believe that Blackadder indulges in this from time to time. Especially prevalent in seasons 3 and 4, when he had more superiors than underlings.
Barely stealthed example: In Blackadder the Third, Prince George complains that a fellow at his club said he had the brains of a donkey. Blackadder, in his most servile tones, states that this is absurd ... "unless it was a very stupid donkey". George's reaction? "If only I'd thought of saying that!"
In the Doctor Who episode "The Sunmakers", Gatherer Hade has an ostentatious manner of addressing The Collector (your Immensity, your Hugeness, your Supernal Eminence, etc), but as their relationship breaks down under the strain of events the honorifics become somewhat insulting, as in: "I fear the situation is worsening, your Grossness!"
Bertie: Oh, stop playing with the hat, Jeeves. I knew you wouldn't like it. Jeeves: Oh, not at all, sir!
Bertie: She gave it to me, you know. Trying to improve my mind, I dare say. Jeeves: That seems scarcely possible, sir.
Jeeves sneaks in a dig at the song "Nagasaki" in response to Bertie's expressed love of the song:
Jeeves: Extremely... invigorating, sir. Bertie: Yes, Jeeves, that is just the word I would have used. Yes, it makes you want to get up and bally well have a run 'round the park. Jeeves:My feelings precisely, sir.
Subverted in the Extras Christmas special, where Andy tries his best to insult his agent but it doesn't land:
Darren: But if I send you, they'll think I don't know what I'm doing! Andy: Ohhh, no one could ever think you don't know what you're doing, that you're a total waste of space and shouldn't even be in the industry. Darren: Well, thanks, mate, but you'd be surprised.
In one episode of Hogan's Heroes, Hogan manages to convince Klink that the name the men have been calling him 'Klink the Fink' is actually a compliment.
Hogan did this to Klink a lot. Klink once complained to Hogan about the prisoners blowing raspberries at him, so Hogan told him that it was a sign of respect. Later in the episode, Hogan lead them in a cheer for Klink - which consisted of all the prisoners blowing a raspberry at the same time.
In Married... with Children, Marcy once berated her husband Steve by saying that she didn't blame Al's involvement in one of their misadventures because "If you give a loaded gun to a chimp and it shoots somebody, you don't blame the chimp." Al sat for a moment before saying, "I think that was a hidden dig at me."
This one from the French and Saunders skit, "The Generation Gap", featuring Dame Helen Mirren acting on a (bad) sitcom written by Jennifer. Bonus points for the insults seeming to hit both people.
Helen: But I don't have any funny lines! Jennifer: Don't blame your tools.
While you'd be hard pressed to find insults in Monty Python's Flying Circus], the "Oscar Wilde Sketch" was comprised of Wilde and others lampooning the king, claiming it to be a quote of one of the others. Each one miraculously manages to turn them into compliments, though only the king seems oblivious.
Major Frank Burns in M*A*S*H is a frequent target, except for those times when people insult him to his face. Two examples:
Burns: Wasn't your nose broken? Radar: Oh no, sir, it was just sprained. Doctor Pierce said I should just stay off my nose for awhile. Burns: I'm a doctor and that's crazy! Radar: I've heard that, sir.
Burns: What I don't understand is, why do people take an instant dislike to me? Trapper: It saves time, Frank.
His replacement, Major Charles Winchester, tends to be the deliverer rather than the recipient of these. For instance, in one episode he calls three Korean doctors "Moe, Curly, Larry", assuring them that those are great philosophers from the West.
However, they aren't fooled. At the end of the episode, when the Korean doctors have alleviated Winchester's bad back with acupuncture, one of them replies to Winchester's apology by quipping that their efforts weren't bad for a bunch of stooges.
Jon Stewart had a great many hilarious barbs to shoot at the guys on Crossfire, but perhaps none quite so good as the ones that passed unnoticed.
Larry: Man! Oz, I would love to get me some of that Buffy and Willow action, if you know what.
Oz: That's great, Larry. You've really mastered the single entendre.
Any time Cordy tries to be relatively nice, this is the result.
In Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. recall a conversation about the F word (Jerry doesn't use it while Louis is Mr. Cluster F-Bomb), where Jerry compared it to an American sports car. Louis thinks Jerry means the F word is special and should be used sparingly, but after some thought realized that his wealthy car-collecting friend meant that the word is flashy, vulgar, and only really appealing to low-class people who don't know better.
After giving a rotten answer on Match Game, the audience boos Bill Cullen. Bill responds by politely thanking the audience.
Slater: Britta! You look great! Such a stunning improvement. Britta: Wow, you look gorgeous. It must've taken all day.
NuckyThompson from Boardwalk Empire throws out a few of these early in the show which go right over the head of his partners because most gangsters are not nearly as well read as he is. For example, when one rather annoying gangster talks about changing his name, Nucky absentmindedly says "A rose by any other name..." When the gangster asks what that means, Nucky just gives him a cold look and tells him "Read a fucking book".
Mad Men's Pete Campbell gets off a pretty awesome one in S3 when he assures his old college buddy that his idea for a national jai alai league is "exactly myfather's sort of investment."
House: When House tests candidates for his team at the beginning of the 4th season, one of the candidates's theories is shot down by Foreman. When House confirms that the candidate's idea was actually good, the candidate subtly looks at Foreman and gets some dust out of his eye... with his middle finger.
Firefly: When Jayne tries on the knit hat he got in the mail from his mother, Wash comments, "Man walks down the street in that hat, you know he's not afraid of anything."
In Game of Thrones, when the people of King's Landing prepare for a siege, Sansa Stark (who is being kept there as a guest/hostage) gets one on her hated fiance King Joffrey, after he gloats about how he'll kill her older brother. In overly innocent tones, she asks him if he'll be on the front lines and not hiding from the fight, because said brother leads the charge and Joffrey just boasted about being better than him. She then gives one to Tyrion, telling him that she'll be praying for his safe return from battle, "just as [she] prays for our king's".
In "Garden of Bones," King Renly Baratheon knows very well the kind of self-serving person Littlefinger is, and is disgusted by it.
Renly: You can trust Brienne. Her loyalty comes without charge.
In "Valar Dohaeris," Margaery Tyrell subtly criticizes Cersei's fashion sense.
Margaery: Loras, isn't the Queen's gown magnificent? The fabric, the embroidery, the metalwork. I've never seen anything like it!
Loras then (politely) rubs it into Cersei's face that he thinks very poorly of her as Queen due to her neglect/mistreatment of the smallfolk.
Loras: [smiling directly at Cersei] Margaery does a great deal of work with the poor back in Highgarden.
Cersei also levels one against Joffrey, though judging by his expression, he got the message.
Cersei: You are your father's son. Not all of us can have a king's bravery.
In Babylon 5, Londo, preparing to meet the new Emperor, informs the Regent that he met the Emperor twice before. The first time, he was an infant, and drooling on himself, and later as an adolescent, trying to look up girls' skirts.
Cartagia: Ah, Mollari. It's wonderful to see you again.
Londo: And you, Majesty. I could swear you have not changed since the last few times I saw you.
Spock: May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilised, treacherous, in every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity. I found them quite refreshing.
Watterson had to fight very hard to keep his syndicate from licensing his work (he didn't want a bunch of crappy Calvin and Hobbes merchandise out there). During that time he threw the occasional Stealth Insult at the syndicate's expense into the strip. He insists that he never wrote anything that didn't stand on its own, though.
In Dilbert, Dogbert once gives the title character this epic zing:
Dogbert: I could never underestimate your intelligence.
Dilbert: Apology accepted.
Also in this strip, where Wally insults the Pointy-Haired Boss, and claims that he's talking to his mother using his hands-free phone.
Pig: My goal in life is to leave every place I visit a little better than when I arrived. Rat: I think you do that. Every time you leave a room, I say to myself 'Hey, the room's a little better.' Pig: Ohhh, thank you!! Thank you!! Rat: (to Goat) The best insults are the ones that look like compliments.
In one Sally Forth strip, Nona says Hilary's obsession with the song "You're So Party, Let's Go Dancey" is "just one big DSM-5 entry. No offence, Hil." Hil's response is a perplexed "Not sure if one's taken".
In Data East Pinball's Guns N' Roses, the "Mystery Award" is collected by shooting a scoop hole beneath Axl Rose's groin; some believe this is an insult against Axl (or a comment on his mental state), and designer John Borg doesn't dissuade the notions...
Arthur: Will there be more learning how to understand people?
Carolyn: No, Arthur, I think you understand as much about people as you ever will.
Arthur: Thanks, Mum, what a nice thing to say.
Carolyn: Case in point.
Douglas' job reference for Martin states, "Other than myself, there is no one at MJN whose skills as a pilot I rate higher." This is a case where only the person being insulted catches the insult; to the interviewer at Swiss Air, this looks like a high recommendation, but Martin knows that he and Douglas are the only two pilots at MJN.
Joshua: ...and then before long, I find myself wondering if I'm some kind of idiot!
Samuel: Oh, I wouldn't waste your time wondering about that.
When Jeremy Clarkson and Ian Hislop discuss Piers Morgan:
Jeremy: I think he's tremendous, isn't he?
Ian: Yes, you mustn't be fooled by this media idea that we all hate each other.
Ian: I mean, he's terrific fun, Piers. He's round my house all the time.
Jeremy: When he isn't at mine! And his career has gone from strength to strength.
Ian: I mean, who could begrudge him international success, money and wealth?
Jeremy: And his wife likes him too!
In the GURPS RPG sourcebook GURPS Banestorm, the Honor-obsessed Sahudese culture considers direct insults to cause both the insulted and the insulter to lose face. Therefore, they have elevated the Stealth Insult to an art form; the standard form is to compliment the target on everything except his most obvious flaws. For example, at a meal consisting of a rice dish, fish and somewhat inferior cakes for dessert, a hostile guest might elaborately praise the rice and fish, but say nothing about the cakes. Thus, the cook will be shamed for their poor quality.
In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony is permitted to deliver a eulogy for Caesar provided that he does not denounce the assassins. He sticks to the letter of the agreement, but nevertheless turns the crowd against the assassins to the point where his repeated references to them (particularly Brutus) as "honorable men" has the effect of a sarcastic jibe.
Another notable example is Hamlet, where the titular character made many of these comments, most notably urging his then-girlfriend Ophelia, "Get Thee to a Nunnery". ("Nunnery" was slang for "brothel" at the time.)
Hamlet calls Polonius a "Fishmonger". When he was corrected, he responded with regret that Polonius was not so honorable a man. It seems to fit in with Hamlet's "antic disposition", but fishmonger is thought to be period slang for "fleshmonger." In other words, he's saying that Polonius is lower than a pimp.
In Molière's play The Miser, title character Harpagon wants his daughter, Elise to marry a much older man, because he'd take her without dowry. When Harpagon's steward, Valère, who's secretly in love with Elise, hears this, he comments: "When a man offers to marry a girl without a dowry, we ought to look no farther. Everything is comprised in that, and "without dowry" compensates for want of beauty, youth, birth, honour, wisdom, and probity." Harpagon takes it completely seriously.
A Streetcar Named Desire has both Stanley and Blanche firing these off at one another at certain points. One memorable moment is when they talk about horoscopes, with Blanche under the assumption that Stanley is an Aries (forceful and dynamic) while Stanley scoffs at Blanche's sign being Virgo the Virgin (in which she's the opposite).
The majority of the song Pore Jud is Daid from Oklahoma! is this. Well, Curly is trying to convince Jud to kill himself - he's not precisely fond of the guy.
Curly: But the folks that really knowed him knowed that beneath them two dirty shirts he always wore there beat a heart as big as all outdoors.
In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Gondoliers, the Duke and Duchess are discussing their daughter's arranged marriage with her. The daughter (who has fallen in love with someone else) says that she will never be able to love her husband:
Duke: I don't know. It's extraordinary what unprepossessing people one can love if one gives one's mind to it.
Duchess: I loved your father.
In Portal, GLaDOS quickly proved herself to be the undisputed master of passive-aggressiveness thanks to her use of this trope. One of the reasons the first game is usually considered funnier than the already-hilarious Portal 2 is because so many of the jokes (the majority of them being jabs at Chell) tend to fly over the heads of first-time players, only clicking on repeat playthroughs after her deep antagonism towards Chell has come to light (and even with the insults that don't call for multiple playthroughs, most of them require you to spend a few moments deciphering their actual meaning).
GLaDOS: "Unbelievable! You, subject name here, must be the pride of subject hometown here."
Dr. Nefarious: Did you hear that, Lawrence? Lawrence: You put the wit in twit, sir. Dr. Nefarious: Yes, I do, don't I... [...] Dr. Nefarious: That moron could never hope to beat the likes of me! Lawrence: If anyone can beat a moron at his own game, it's you, sir. [...] Lawrence: Even drooling imbeciles can achieve success in certain fields, sir. Mad Science, for example. [...] Dr. Nefarious:To think, they called me insane, Lawrence. We'll see who's insane when my mutant armies have exterminated all life on this planet! Lawrence: Yes, that should clear things right up, sir.
In the ending, when Snake gives his speech about turning his back on almost everyone he's ever known, he's holding Zadornov's prosthetic hand in that same gesture.
Batman: Arkham City: One of Hugo Strange's interview tapes with The Riddler begins with the professor saying that Riddler doesn't have to hack into the intercom to talk, and that he should come in person so they can have a discussion "as equals". Riddler scoffs at this and gloats about how he'll kill Batman and find out his Secret Identity. Hugo, (who already knows who Batman is), claims that he was mistaken about them being equals. A smug Riddler ignorantly agrees.
Hazama of BlazBlue fame is known for dropping these from time to time, per his Faux Affably Evil nature. One particularly gratuitous incident is the end of Makoto's Arcade mode, where he gives the appearance of praising her information-gathering abilities. In reality, he is cursing her very name for almost ruining his plansagain using said information-gathering abilities against him, and he only stops feigning his compliments when he activates his Azure Grimoire and tries to kill her.
There's also his line from the first game about not being very good at fighting. In his humbleeyes the stuff he can do is probably not all that impressive... so what does that make you who cannot beat a self-professed weakling?
Guild Wars has the Asura call humans by the apparent nickname "bookah". Vekk eventually reveals that a bookah is the boogeyman of young Asura, notorious for its large size and stupidity. The fact that he explains this so readily when asked seems to indicate he doesn't think you'll make the connection.
A clever one in Kid Icarus: Uprising: In Chapter 20, before going to confront a possessed Palutena, Viridi chimes that it's time to save Palutena, to which Hades interjects: "'Save Palutena'? Don't you mean 'Crush Palutena'?" Pit replies: "Go home, Hades. Just...go home." Considering where home is for Hades...
Little Busters!: At one point, Masato claims that Riki has gotten sick because he isn't muscular enough. Kengo tells Masato that he'll never have to worry about getting a cold, in reference to the Japanese saying that stupid people can't catch colds. Masato smiles and thanks him. A few lines later he does figure it out, though.
Shortly after being summoned into Erfworld, Parson was told that he should address Stanley using some respectful title. He replied that, where he came from, the highest title of respect was "Tool". Stanley interpreted this as a reference to his quest to gain all the Arkentools for himself, and declared that henceforth he would be known as "Stanley the Tool" (thus making it a combined Stealth Insult and Insult Backfire).
Not to mention a pun on Stanley's name.
Used in thisAwkward Zombie strip. The insulted characters do notice, but not until after the person handing out the insults leaves.
Used in thisMegatokyo strip, when Seraphim insults Asmodeus by saying "My partner's far sexier than you are", and he's still smiling because he thinks he's still up there. Little to his knowledge, the partner is Boo.
In Irregular Webcomic!, a black market weapons dealer is trying to sell to Serron and Iki Piki. He says that a new weapon is a quantum leap above its predecessors. Iki Piki says that "quantum leap" actually means the smallest possible unit of change. When the dealer doesn't understand, Iki Piki says that his brain is obviously a quantum leap above primordial protoplasm. The dealer responds with "flattery will get you nowhere"
An early Dominic Deeganstrip has Luna greet her sister Amelia with a four-sentence greeting, beginning with the letters "S", "L", "U", and "T". Dominic catches on and snickers.
When she needs to find a secret passageway in Girl Genius, Agatha muses that they just need to “Think like a diabolical, paranoid, amoral megalomaniac.” Cue Tarvek finding it right off the bat.
Ivy: Marlene, I gotta say. I'm as surprised as anyone, but I think... I think I like it! I think it might not be terrible! You're like the little retarded kid who finally learned how to fly. Marlene: Okay, no talking during the movie.
Everyone's a hero in their own way Everyone's got villains they must face They're not as cool as mine But folks you know it's fine to know your place Everyone's a hero in their own way In their own not-that-heroic way
See here and there on this very Wiki. For example, in the Film section of Pragmatic Villainy:
The Prophecy featured a pragmatic Lucifer (played by Viggo Mortensen) who has the angelic habit of perching atop things like a bird. Satan saves the main cast from an evil Gabriel, who was on a rampage against mankind. His own selfish motives being "we don't need another hell up there". * Which is almost repeated in Constantine, down to the name of the rebel angel. However, The Prophecy could have been based on or inspired by the Hellblazer series.
In SF Debris Chuck claims that Janeway's fiance Mark gave her a copy of Dantes Inferno as a way of saying that the idea of marrying her puts him in mind of experiencing all the torments of the damned. Note that only the explanation is his invention; why on earth anyone would give that book as an engagement present otherwise is a mystery that Star Trek: Voyager does not explain.
In The Simpsons episode "The War of the Simpsons," Homer has a talk with Bart, who saw him making a drunken fool of himself the previous night.
Homer: I'm sorry it happened, and I just hope you didn't lose a lot of respect for me. Bart: Dad, I have as much respect for you as I ever did or ever will. Homer: Awww. (pats Bart's head)
Given how often people get away with insulting Homer to his face in the most obvious possible ways, it would seem to be a wasted effort.
Cotton: Well of course you're a better father than me, Hank. You raised Bobby! All I raised was you!
In Despicable Me, Gru asks Miss Hattie whether she speaks Spanish. When she says no, he tells her that her face is "Como un burro." She is flattered... until she later buys a Spanish/English dictionary. Especially insulting, since he used the masculine form.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: after Sokka shows everyone his drawing of Appa, Toph tells him it looks just like the real thing to her. It takes Sokka a second to get the inherent sarcasm of this statement, what with her being blind.
Yosemite Sam: Are you trying to make me look like a fool?
Bugs Bunny: You don't need me to make you look like a fool.
Yosemite Sam: You're darn right I don't!
In The Swan Princess, one of the musicians says "I'm an artist, not a boar!" (Protesting his being asked to dress up like an animal for archery practice.) Derek's advisor Rogers, the resident Deadpan Snarker, gives an Aside Glance and says "Could've fooled me."
This cutaway joke, in which two women having lunch at a cafe exchange bitchy insults about each other's appearances disguised with cheerful friendliness. It then crosses over to two men also having lunch at the same place, at which point one of the men... sincerely compliments the other's tie, which the other accepts gratefully.
Men: We know how to be friends!
"Dan VS Canada" takes a fair number of shots at the United States disguised as jokes about Canada.
Dan: Canada sucks! They still have all their trees!
The Penguins of Madagascar subverts this with Skipper describing someone exactly like him, then Marlene calls him out on it. The subversion occurs when Private tells her that Skipper's a thousand times worse than that meaning it as an actual compliment, but it may actually turn out to be an Insult Backfire as Skipper thanks him for it.
A common Stealth Insult among journalists and news analysts is "He/she refuses to let the facts get in the way of a good story." (Think about it.)
There is a picture of Hillary Rodham Clinton shaking hands with a soldier while the soldier is flashing a downwards peace sign with his other hand. This hand gesture means "I am doing this against my will."
A former student of Nicholas Murray Butler (who was then the president of Columbia University) was asked to contribute a piece to Poetry magazine. He obliged... with a poem in which the first letter of each line spelled out the statement "Nicholas Murray Butler Is A Horse's Ass".
This creative headstone shows what happens when your girlfriend and your wife meet up after your death but before the carving of your monument.
19th century French theatre actor Frédérick Lemaître, angered by the noisy audience, called them "imbéciles" (idiots) before leaving the stage. The audience got quite angered and the theatre director order Lemaître to apologize. He did so, by saying "Je vous ai traités d'imbéciles. C'est vrai! Je vous fais des excuses. J'ai tort!" ("I called you idiots. That's true! I apologize. I'm wrong!")
Similarly, Winston Churchill was once forced to apologize for accusing another politician of lying in Parliament. His "apology"? "I called the Right Honourable Gentleman a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. Punctuate that sentence any way you like."
A stealth insult heard of in England is to say to a (ideally dim) coworker you dislike "See you next Tuesday!". The insult is in the initials (C U...).
Which is now recognized in America, perhaps partly because American Dad! had Roger quip "My boss is being a real 'Catch U Next Tuesday'."
An American version could be the less offensive and somewhat insulting "If you see Kay, you tell her I said hi!" Say the first five words out loud slowly.
There's the Irish "Whale oil beef hooked" (say it out loud, possibly with an Irish accent).
After a public dispute between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, the latter wrote an open letter of apology to the Royal Society. It contained what became a famous quote of his "If I have seen further than most it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" (and not twisted little hunchbacks like Hooke).
When the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea and its crew taken prisoner, its sailors were photographed to show off how well they had been taken care of. The sailors found a creative way to get their message through: many of them flipped the finger,◊ telling their North Korean captors that the gesture was a "Hawaiian good luck sign." Needless to say, the North Koreans were not happy with them once they found out.
"Hawaiian Good Luck Sign" is still a popular euphemism for it in some regions.
Pueblo's captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher, was tortured by the North Korean forces, who eventually succeeded in forcing him to confess. However, to quote The Other Wiki, 'none of the Koreans knew enough English to write a confession, so they had Bucher write it himself. They verified the meaning of his words, but failed to catch the pun when he said "We paean (paean meaning a fervent expression of joy or praise) the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung".' Another quote from the confession: "[We] beseech the Korean people to forgive our dastardly deeds unmatched since Attila."
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill authored by one of his political opponents... with a veto message in which the first letter of each line spelled out "Fuck You".
Double whammy — not only is there the "Fuck you", but the actual text of the letter is politician-speak for "your bill is worthless, get back to me when you're ready to quit being a jackass and get your priorities straight".
The latter would hardly count as 'stealth', however, given that its recipients probably all speak fluent Politician.
A Jester once compared King John Of England to Jesus. He said that Jesus had the same wisdom he had as a child as he did as a grown man. King John had the same wisdom as a grown up as he did as a child.
Before the 2010 World Cup, a network analyst stated "You can't underestimate the USA's chances against England!" The United States played them to a draw in that match. So...
When PETCO won the naming rights to the San Diego Padres' new ballpark, PETA, who had been protesting PETCO's activities for many years, tried to stop the deal from going through. After failing at that, they decided to have an anti-PETCO message inscribed on a brick inside the stadium. Their first couple of attempts spelled their message out directly and were rejected by the Padres as unsuitable. When they switched to the stealth method of insulting PETCO, their message made it through.
Insulting someone using a foreign slang could count too, if the person you're insulting doesn't know what it means.
At Stalag Luft 3, where the events dramatized in The Great Escape took place, prisoners called the guards "Goons", telling them that it stood for "German Officer Or Noncom."
In a February, 2011 interview on Al Jazeera, a spokesman for the Libyan government was telling the reporters what was really happening in Libya so poorly that off-screen crew members could be heard laughing at the absurdity of his claims. The two reporters conducting the interview kept their composure despite the hilariously incompetent attempts to deny, spin, fold and mutilate the truth, and at the end of the interview one, with an absolutely deadpan expression, thanked the spokesman and said that he was a perfect representative of the Libyan government.
Argentinian former-president Carlos Menem was loved during his time as president, but hated afterwards due to all the corruption he was linked to. In some sort of way, think of him as Argentina's Richard Nixon. In 2011 he went to vote, and the guy who was supposed to receive him made a gesture that's popular believed to protect you from jinx (which is touching your left testicle). See it yourself.◊
Not long after the Tiananmen Square protests, someone wrote a poem that, on the face of it, seemed to praise the Chinese government. It was even featured in the People's Daily. Not long after, it was discovered that if you took the characters going diagonally, it read "[Prime Minister] Li Peng must resign to appease the anger of the people."
The Chinese are actually masters of stealth insults, or at least that's how they've presented themselves. Take, for instance, this widely publicized curse:
The Chinese language has a useful tool for stealth insults - the intonation (pitch) of a syllable affects the meaning of the word, often quite dramatically. For example, the phrase "grass mud horse" becomes "fuck your mother" if said with different intonation.
Armenian Radio: We do not comment on national economics.
Q:: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union the same as there is the USA?
Armenian Radio:: In principle, yes. In the USA, you can stand in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished. In the Soviet Union, you can stand in the Red Square in Moscow and yell, "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished.
A headstone in a Nova Scotia cemetery:
Here lies Ezekial Aikle
The Good Die Young.
In American Football; sportswriters often will refer to some quarterbacks as "game managers"; a term used to describe quarterbacks that on one hand wouldn't hurt a team by forcing plays that often result in interceptions... but on the other hand said quarterback generally doesn't put up huge stats; as their team typically relies on a strong defense and running game to win.
The People's Republic of China enforces its world monopoly of pandas by denying foreign zoos a panda unless they sign a document that says that the panda and all its descendants belong to the Chinese government and they are only on loan. In one occasion, however, China gifted a couple of pandas to Taiwan that were free of this imposition, and was met with protests from the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese understood too well that this was the Communist Party's way to say that Taiwan is not a foreign country, but a part of the People's Republic of China.
The deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a congratulatory telegram to Adolf Hitler on June 17th, 1940, after the fall of France, which read: "Under the deeply moving impression of the capitulation of France I congratulate you and the whole German Wehrmacht on the mighty victory granted by God,in the words of the Emperor Wilhelm the Great in 1870: What a turn of events brought about by divine dispensation! " - basically the Emperor said in diplomatic language the Führer was an incompetent who only got lucky by the will of God. Hitler understood the subtext and got appropriately angry, but answered one week later in similar diplomatic, but hollow language.
Wilhelm II got one himself from Otto von Bismarck, who as Chancellor had had a good working relationship with Wilhelm's grandfather and predecessor, Kaiser Wilhelm the First, but was fired by Wilhelm II after two years of service. When Bismarck died ten years later, his headstone read:
Prince Otto von Bismarck.
A faithful servant of Kaiser Wilhelm the First.
Arthur C. Clarke described one of his methods of responding to crank mail: sending a reply in barely-legible handwriting with key words scrawled in completely illegible squiggles (e.g. "Your [squiggle] is the greatest piece of [squiggle] I have ever seen.") so that the correspondent "did not know whether I was praising him to the skies or telling him to boil his head."
Google, for awhile, had been working with the MPAA on trying to curb piracy via their search engine and had done quite a good job, chopping search results in half. The MPAA's response to that was "Everyone shares a responsibility to help curb unlawful conduct online, and we are glad to see Google acknowledging its role in facilitating access to stolen content". Google was quite incensed at that and broke ties with the MPAA and opted to work with the production companies separately.