phrop (words and meanings)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Arnold Lunn (third from left) with Queen Elisabeth and King Albert of Belgium and Princess Marie Jose. (Bettmann/Getty Images)


Phrop is an informal term for a phrase that means the opposite of what it says: verbal hypocrisy. Also called a phony phrase or a pharisaical phrase.

A blend of "phrase" and "opposite," the term phrop was coined by Sir Arnold Henry Moore Lunn (1888-1974), who defined it as "a phrase the real meaning of which is the exact opposite of what the words selected suggest" (Memory to Memory, 1956).

Lunn characterized phrops as "conventional insincerities which are the mortar of society."

In 1953, Lunn invited readers of The Spectator to submit their favorite phrops. Among the submissions were "Stop me if I'm boring you," "I'm proud of it," "Give a man a decent living wage and he's satisfied," and "It takes more than that to make me angry."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Sir Arnold [Lunn], a tall man with a pronounced limp, advised us that he lost two inches of his right leg as the result of a mountaineering accident in Wales when he was 21. 'You know what my hobby is, apart from skiing?' he said. 'It's collecting what I call phrops—phrases that say the exact opposite to what they mean.' We asked for examples, and he obliged with 'It's not the money I'm interested in but the principle,' 'I'd rather be right than President,' 'I'd be the last to suggest,' and 'I hate to mention it, but.' 'Not that I would do away with phrops,' he said. 'I think they're part of civilization.'"
    ("Phrop Collector." The New Yorker, Dec, 20, 1952)
  • Sidney J. Harris's Dictionary of Phrops
    "Among the various literary projects I have contemplated for some time . . . is one for compiling a dictionary of phrases.

    "The distinction of this dictionary is that it would include only those phrases which mean exactly the opposite of what they say. I have long noticed that whenever people want to hurt others, and gratify themselves, they begin with a mealy-mouthed phrase.

    "For instance, . . . 'I'm only thinking of your interest . . .' which means that the speaker is about to propose some plan of benefit to himself, without the slightest consideration for the interest of the other party. . . .

    "'I don't want to make you unhappy . . .' invariably means that the speaker will soon obtain great joy from relaying some ugly rumors about the person he is addressing. These rumors are repeated with a false air of pious disbelief, which only turns the knife. . . .

    "'I'm a blunt, plain-speaking man . . .' means that the speaker is desirous of bamboozling his audience by a show of hearty frankness. This verbal hypocrisy is what Justice Holmes meant when he said: 'I have always thought that candor was the best form of deception.' . . .

    "'Now, don't change your plans on my account . . .' which is said by certain relatives who would be mortally offended if you actually went on undisturbed by their sudden arrival. . . .

    "'I wouldn't want this to get around . . .' meaning that you may feel free to repeat this juicy morsel of gossip to anyone, but don't use my name when you do.

    "'We must all make sacrifices for the sake of our country in this time of emergency . . .' meaning all except the interest represented by the politician who is making this noble declamation. . . .

    "'I don't like to boast . . .' which means 'try to top this one.'

    "'I know you won't mind . . .' which means the speaker is about to push his way in line ahead of you. . . .

    "'I'm all for progress . . .' which means the speaker is pedaling backwards as fast as his intellectual rear-view mirror will permit him."
    (Sydney J. Harris, Strictly Personal. Henry Regnery Company, 1953)
  • Euphemistic Phrases
    "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."
    (Philip Howard, The State of the Language: English Observed. Hamish Hamilton, 1984)

Pronunciation: frop