A Compliment that Complements

Dead_people_eat_brains_by_rebel_penguinHello, dear readers! It’s been quite a while, I know. Between work, family, turning 40, more work, pets, alien encounters, and more work, life has been a touch busier than normal, making it quite a challenge to get a coherent blog post written. But I’m here now to talk to you about something that came up in conversation sometime last week.

So, there are these two words that sound more or less identical—in fact, only a single letter distinguishes one from the other. On top of that, these two words also have similar meanings. Finally, both words can act as either a noun or a verb. Definitely a recipe for confusion, wouldn’t you say?

Okay, so let’s look at the words in question.

This word came to English in the late 1300s from the Old French compliement, meaning an accomplishment or fulfillment, which in turn came from the Latin complere, meaning to fill up or complete.

In the 1570s, this word came to English. It is also from the Latin complere, meaning to fill up or complete. The key difference is that to get to English, compliment went via the Italian complimento and the French compliment, both of which describe an expression of respect and civility.

As Nouns
When used as a noun, complement describes something that contributes extra features to something else, in a way that improves or emphasizes that thing. (It can also refer to a mathematical complement, but I’m not going to cover that today.)

  • Zombie Foodies Today recommends a 2012 Californian Spinal Fluid as the ideal complement to lightly aged brains.

When used as a noun, compliment describes a polite expression of praise or admiration.

  • If you enjoy your meal at Le Zombie Pourri, pop your head into the kitchen to offer the chef a compliment.

As Verbs
When used as a verb, complement means to contribute extra features to someone or something in a way that improves or emphasizes their qualities, or makes something complete.

  • Dragging one of your legs and drooling out the side of your mouth can really complement your zombie look.

When used as a verb, compliment means to politely congratulate or praise someone.

  • The other zombies complimented Andy on his dismembered arm, which was all the rage in zombie fashion this year.

So, complement involves adding something in order to improve or emphasize the person or thing you’re adding it to, whereas compliment involves polite praise.


Etymological information and definitions come from a combination of the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological EnglishOxford Dictionaries Online, and the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Image credit: rebel-penguin @ deviantART


9 thoughts on “A Compliment that Complements

  1. I was aware of the different meanings but it was cool to read the definitions and see where they came from and how they ended up meaning what they do

    1. You could be right about the spinal fluid. I guess there’s only one way to know for sure… 😉

      Thanks for the welcome, Sue! I did have a pretty awesome birthday.

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