How Different Cultures Give a Compliment: Smart Cookies and Old Pots

Tuesday, January 31 4 min read

Exchanging compliments can connect us to other humans in a way that makes us feel valued and appreciated. Researchers have found that receiving a compliment activates the same parts of the brain that light up when we’re given a monetary award. The word "compliment" itself comes from the Latin term complementum , meaning "fulfillment."

There's no doubt that giving compliments is an important part of human interaction, but just as languages change across cultures, so do forms of flattery. Let's explore some interesting idioms from the United States and abroad to express your admiration.

United States

"You're a smart cookie"

Meaning: "You're clever"

This is a kind way to tell someone they're intelligent — but why a cookie? In the 1920s, the word "cookie" referred to a person, especially an attractive woman. By the '40s and '50s, "cookie" also became synonymous with the word "smart," which led to the coining of the idiom "smart cookie" (to refer to any gender) as we use it today. This is also where the phrase "tough cookie" — a compliment for an emotionally strong person — comes from.

"You rock"

Meaning: "You're awesome"

This phrase — one of the most popular ways in American English to tell someone they're incredible — evolved from 1950s rock 'n' roll music. It had rebellious and energetic connotations, running parallel to the trendy new music scene. By the 1960s, "to rock" meant "to be full of life and excitement," as in, "Are you ready to rock?" The modern complimentary usage evolved from this phrase. Now, "you rock" means someone is excellent.

"You're a peach"

Meaning: "You're the best"

We wouldn't call someone a “grape” or a “banana,” but “ peach ” is a surefire way to let someone know they're great. It comes from the adjective "peachy" that became slang for "attractive" around the turn of the 20th century. Its usage shifted toward "very good, fine, or excellent" in the 1960s, with the use of the phrase " peachy-keen ." Today, if someone asks how you're doing, "just peachy" is synonymous with "very well" (although that specific phrase can take on a sarcastic tone, so pay attention to the context). Calling someone a "peach" is a compliment that could mean they've done well at something, are a good person, or are pleasant to be around.

Compliments From Around the World

"You're a piece of bread"

Meaning: "You're a very good person"

Origin: Italy

Calling someone "a piece of bread" is a good thing in Italian. The expression sei un pezzo di pane ("you are a piece of bread") means that someone is a good person or is kindhearted. It's similar to the English idiom of calling someone a " good egg " (a nice or likable person).

"You look like blood and milk"

Meaning: "You look pretty/healthy"

Origin: Czechia

This is a traditional compliment format from Central European culture, especially Czech. To compliment someone with the phrase krev a mlíko ("blood and milk") might seem awkward to American ears, but it's polite in Czech. It refers to a "milk-and-roses complexion," or a rosy-cheeked, healthy appearance. Another way to call someone pretty in Czech could be holka jako lusk ("a girl like a peapod"), because she is bursting with health. To call someone handsome in Czech, just call them řízek (meaning "schnitzel"), aka a hunk of meat.

"You're bright as a button"

Meaning: "You're clever/smart"

Origin: U.K.

Being called " bright as a button " is a positive thing; it means that someone thinks you're intelligent. It can also mean that someone is quick to learn or very happy and full of energy. This idiom might have originally referenced the shiny brass buttons on military uniforms in the 19th century, around the time the phrase came into use. American English also adopted the idiom but changed it to " cute as a button" in reference to children.

"You're an old pot"

Meaning: "You're a great chef"

Origin: Cameroon

In the same way we offer "compliments to the chef," an excellent cook might receive the accolade of "you're an old pot" in the Central African country of Cameroon . The idea is that old, dependable cooking pots make the best food.

"You're the image of massive"

Meaning: "You look great; very attractive"

Origin: Ireland

This has quite the opposite meaning in American English, where telling someone they look "massive" is almost never appropriate, unless maybe they ' re lifting weights at the gym. But in Ireland, especially around Dublin, the word " massive " means "good-looking." You might also hear the phrase " bleedin' massive ," which is used to tell someone that they look exceptionally good (similar to how the Brits use "bloody" in exchange for "very"). "Massive" can also mean "tasty," as in, "That dinner was massive."

"You little ripper"

Meaning: "That's terrific"

Origin: Australia

This compliment expresses pride in someone. Your mate just got a job promotion? "You little ripper!" It's also exclaimed with a sense of joy to no one in particular, such as when winning $10 on a lottery ticket. The phrase " you little beauty " is also used in the same way by the Aussies .

"My cheeks are falling off"

Meaning: "This is delicious"

Origin: Japan

In Japan, you don't just tell your friend that the meal is good; you say that your cheeks are falling off. The phrase ほっぺたが落ちる ( hoppeta ga ochiru ) translates to "cheeks fall" in English. It is a traditional way to express that the food is so delicious, your cheeks are (metaphorically) falling off. This is a common, informal compliment you'd pay to a friend or family member who happens to be an excellent chef.

Featured image credit: PeopleImages / iStock

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