Have you ever given a compliment to someone and realized what you were actually saying is pretty mean? The good ol’ backhanded compliment. A couple of typical examples are “You’re smarter than you look!” or “Look at you already at the restaurant. I totally wasn’t expecting you to be on time.” or “That dress is so great at distracting attention away from that horrible haircut.”
I think there’s another lesser known term that I would like to dub “backhanded labels.” What’s a backhanded label, you ask? Good question. It’s when you try to define a person by something they’re good at but what you’re calling them is actually a terrible thing.
I noticed this myself recently because people often tell my daughter she’s the Pied Piper. She isn’t particularly keen on toddlers (understatement of the year), but for some reason they absolutely love her. They flock to her whenever she’s around. She doesn’t even have to know the kid and she’ll still be the light this cherubic little moth flies too. Hence the Pied Piper title. Seems great, right? The Pied Piper, a jolly merry man with a mystical flute who skips around the neighborhood collecting kids in his moving soul train line.
If you take the original story at face value, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a horrible, disturbed, creepy man. He was a predator whose main targets were young children. When he wasn’t paid for his rat trapping services, he decided to trap the town’s children in retaliation. Using his hypnotic melody he would steal children out of their homes, lead them away from town, and do God only knows what with them. I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks. The point is, the kids who followed the Pied Piper never came back so he either a) killed them, b) sold them into child labor, or c) they got away never to return home but still lived a happy prosperous life elsewhere (yeah, right).
The other school of thought on the Pied Piper is that the story serves as a metaphor – the “Pied Piper” being a plague that wiped out the town’s youth. Oh, well then, that’s a much better way to think of the Pied Piper, isn’t it!?
Sooo…the two possible interpretations of the legend are a pedophile/child trafficker AND a plague. So why in the hell do we now use the phrase as if it’s a GOOD thing?
I’m guilty of this myself. In the past I’ve called my mom the Pied Piper of squirrels. Not because she leads them away to some mass grave she’s been accumulating to slake her rodent bloodlust, but because squirrels love her and follow her around. My daughter definitely wouldn’t go postal and kill a bunch of children, nor does she have the wherewithal to sell them into slave labor. And while they both can be irritating at times I don’t think I’d ever go so far as to call either of them a “plague.”
It’s just amazing to me how history gets misinterpreted or flat-out changed after enough time has passed. People should be greatly insulted if they’re ever called the Pied Piper. That’s your history lesson for the day. So before you dole out what you think is a compliment, make sure you’re not accidentally implying that the person is a serial killer. Or a plague. Words to live by.