Etymology Usage

Backhanded criticism

Q: Is there is a term for pre-qualifying statements like “Nothing personal, but …” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …”? I don’t want anyone to take this personally or the wrong way, but people who use these phrases are cowards and morons.

A: You can find several non-technical terms online for these back-handed statements, including “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers.”

The lexicographer Erin McKean, who discusses these expressions in a Nov. 14, 2010, article in the Boston Globe, says their object is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy.”

“This technique,” McKean notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

The word comes from post-classical Latin, and it’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “rhetorical figure by which an opponent’s objections are anticipated and answered.”

Nobody is fooled by the modern usage, of course. Someone who begins by saying “No offense, but …” or “Nothing personal, but …” is about to step on your toes, and both parties know it.

In her article (headlined “I hate to tell you: Phrases that announce ‘I’m lying’ ”), McKean includes a rich selection of these expressions, the ones you mention and these besides:

“It’s not about the money, but …”

“It really doesn’t matter to me, but …”

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but … ”

“I hate to say it, but …”

“I hear what you’re saying, but …”

“I’m not a racist, but …”

“I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but …”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but …”

“Promise me you won’t get mad, but…”

“It’s (really) none of my business, but …”

“I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but …”

We might add another example that’s become popular lately. This one (“Just sayin’ ”) has no “but,” and it usually comes after the irritating statement, as in “You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’. ” [Note: We wrote a post about this phrase in 2013.]

To be fair, though, the impulse to use phrases like these is understandable.

“It would be nice if we all stood behind our words instead of erecting walls of disclaimers in front of them,” McKean says. “But it’s also human to want to mitigate people’s reactions when we say something negative.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 26, 2020.]

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