What's in a Word | All Blogs

A complementary compliment

By Debra Dobbins

An immediate reaction to clue 41 across in today’s crossword puzzle could be, “Who’s Yang and what nice thing did he or she say?” Discerning readers, though, will note there is no “i” in the second word, so it does not mean praise.

“Complement” and “compliment” started out from the same Latin word, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Both words wend their way back to the Latin word, “complere ‘to complete’" the dictionary notes, adding that the word had to do with the “notion of ‘complete the obligations of politeness.’” Perhaps in ancient Rome one’s manners were considered incomplete if one did not routinely sing the praises of others.

In the sense used in the clue above, “complement” means a complete set. Another of its meanings is “that which completes or brings to perfection,” according to Webster’s. For example, home decorators frequently use “complement” to describe painting one wall in a different color than the other walls in a room; the color must be of a hue that helps complete the aesthetics of the room. Car manufacturers are careful to ensure the colors in the interiors of their vehicles complement the colors of the exteriors.

Speaking of automobiles, here’s a tidbit about Seattle businessman Craig McCaw, who has been quite successful in the cellular phone industry. In 2012 he was able to fork over $35 million for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, according to Bloomberg News. The car was first built for British race driver Stirling Moss, according to the same source.

McCaw apparently does not believe he is entirely a self-made man. On Brainyquotes.com he is quoted as saying, ” I think the way I look at things gives me a different perspective. I'm most valuable when I work with a team of bright people who complement my weaknesses with their strengths.”

So, there you have it: a complementary compliment.


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