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So many of my attempts at finding the source of words end in failure that it’s always a pleasure to encounter one whose origin is unequivocally known.

My introduction to it was in the pages of a book by Philip Howard, formerly literary editor of The Times and a continuing commentator on the vagaries and changing nature of English:

Related to euphemisms are those lying reversible phrases that mean the opposite of what they say. The English, who are a notoriously hypocritical race, and anxious to be liked, have a peculiar proclivity for these phrases. The late Sir Arnold Lunn invented the name “phrops” for these euphemistic phrases that do not wear their true meaning on their face.

The State of the Language, by Philip Howard, 1985. Sir Arnold Lunn (1888–1974) was a mountaineer, champion skier and religious controversialist.

Sir Arnold Lunn
Sir Arnold Lunn, photographed in
Switzerland in 1974

Examples of phrops are “we must have lunch sometime”, and “we must keep in touch”, both of which actually mean “my life’s ambition is never to encounter you again”. The academic and legal form “with all due respect” really says “I am about to demolish your argument and if at all possible your reputation with complete and utter disrespect”. A polite “I regret that a previous engagement makes it impossible to accept your kind invitation” replaces the truthful “I would rather be gnawed by a rabid stoat.”

Philip Howard says that Sir Arnold invented the word for a competition in The New Statesman. However, the first appearance of the word I can trace was in an article in the Daily Gleaner of Jamaica in October 1950. Sir Arnold seems to have created it as a short form of phrase + opposite. It is still around, largely through Philip Howard’s continuing affection for it in The Times, though it hasn’t reached any dictionaries.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 05 Mar 2011