'...a phrase whose subtext means the opposite of its surface meaning'1
Phrop is a very rare word; I haven’t been able to find it in any dictionaries or encyclopaedias but despite that I have been fortunate enough to come across this rare gem twice.
Strangely enough both examples were found in the field of modern etiquette rather than linguistics.
Occasionally we English speakers get a little carried away with irony, and the phrop is a result of this. There are some polite euphemisms that can lead to a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings and so the gurus of good manners are beginning to make use of this word to help explain some of the confusion they cause.
Almost every phrase (in any language) can be used both literally and ironically. However some common sayings are used as phrops so frequently it is hard to imagine them being used genuinely; for example:
- Pigs might fly.
- (This phrase is almost always a phrop, unless used by an insane genetic scientist.)
- We must do lunch sometime!
- (When said in L.A.)
- The dog's bollocks.
- (Other "bollocks" tend to mean bad; I see no reason why canine testicles should be exempt.)
- The right honourable gentleman...
- (Only when suggesting that another British politician is a dishonourable cad.*)
- A likely story
- (for calling attention to a tall tale)
- With all due respect...
- (When suggesting that anyone other than a British politician is a dishonourable cad.)
- Yeah right
- (I don't think I've ever used this expression sincerely.)
- Lots of love,
- (When ending a letter, a simple 'love' is considered more intimate.2 )
If you don’t think that these phrases could cause sufficient confusion to warrant a descriptive term, then please imagine a novice English speaker fresh from overseas. Just as he is becoming confident that he can rely on English phrases to help pick up conversational english, he overhears this:
"With all due respect mate, you're not exactly the dogs bollocks"
Taken literally that gibberish means:
"My friend/sexual partner, whom I respect, you are not a shrivelled hirsute mammalian gonad".
If I were that unfortunate traveller I would hop back on the plane and retire to a place where words mean what they are supposed to.
For the sake of everyone who visits the English speaking world we have to put a stop to this madness!
Somehow I don't think I'm, going to persuade you that using a phrop is wrong (especially when confusing people is so much fun).
However I hope that when you are next invited to ‘do lunch sometime’ Instead of retorting ‘Yeah right, and pigs might fly’, you might instead ask whether or not they intended the phrase to be treated as a phrop.
- Lots of love,
1 Timesonline article and more recently
2Page 139, The Man’s Book by Thomas Fink (2006). Available from www.orionbooks.co.uk
If anyone would like to add to the list of phrops above, send me a quick msg,
remember that they have to be almost always used as a phrop, as pretty much any phrase can be used ironically.
*Actually this is more frequently used as a straight phrase, so I've broken my own rule.