Dear Word Detective: An acquaintance recently received a book she had bought on eBay, and enclosed with the book was a card that said “With Compliments.” She was charmed, but curious at the same time as to the origin and proper use of the phrase. When presenting something with your compliments, isn’t it properly something that is being given freely, or “complimentary”? If someone has bought something from you, would it actually be proper to say “with compliments?” — Lori.
Hmm. I’m usually more of a “glass half empty” than “glass half full” kind of guy myself (lately, in fact, I’ve been in a “Give me back my glass” frame of mind), but I think your friend may be looking a complimentary horse in the mouth, so to speak. She bought something on eBay, she actually received said something, you don’t mention it being covered in squirrel droppings or showing signs of a recent charbroiling, and her only complaint seems to be a small card of questionable literacy? Your friend needs to start playing the lottery before her luck wears off.
On the other hand, your friend is correct. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “complimentary” as “Given free to repay a favor or as an act of courtesy,” and even uses the example “complimentary copies of the new book.” As your friend paid for the book, it was hardly “complimentary” in that sense. Perhaps the dealer was “complimenting” (flattering) the buyer on her fine choice of reading material. OK, probably not.
Of course, as always, it might have been worse: the card might have read “With Complements.” The distinction between “complement” and “compliment” escapes many people, which is understandable because these two words started out as essentially the same word. The root of both was the Latin noun “complementum,” from “complere,” to fill up or finish (also the source of “complete”). English adopted “complementum” as “complement” in the 14th century with the sense of “that which completes,” but by the late 16th century we were using it to mean more specifically “that which fulfills the norms of civilized behavior,” i.e., politeness. A “complement” (note the spelling) became “polite words of praise.”
Then, in the 17th century, English essentially imported “complementum” again, this time as “compliment” (with an “i”), and began using it to mean “an expression of regard; words of praise,” and, as a verb, “to praise” or “to present a person with a gift as an act of courtesy” (as in the “complimentary” breakfasts offered by many motels these days). This new “compliment” (and the adjective “complimentary”) left “complement” with an “e” to devolve back to its root meaning of “something that completes or matches” (as in “Floppy clown shoes would be the perfect complement for that outfit”).