asteism /ASTEE-izm/. noun. A backhanded compliment. Pleasant mockery; genteel, refined or polite irony or insult. Asteisms of the first sort include statements like “that dress makes you look so thin.” The second includes the work of many wits, such as Winston Churchill’s comment about Stafford Cripps that “he has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” From Greek asteismos (wit or witticism), from asteios (of a city, rather than the country).
A term of some debate because of its vagueness, Roman grammarian Donatus said that people claimed “everything that was free of a simple rusticity and sufficiently polished with urbane wit” as asteism (a statement that is a delicious asteism itself), while Simon Gaunt notes that asteism represents “an attempt by rhetoricians to systematize a quality that does not lend itself to categorization: ironic tone.”
“The garrulous brother of the taciturn Holy Roman Emperor Charles V once tried to cajole Charles into dinner conversation. Charles used asteism when he replied, ‘What need that brother, since you have words enough for us both.’” (Bryan Garner)
“‘Asteism?’ Love questioned. ¶ ‘A more delicate form of sarcasm—sarcasm sharpened to its most exquisite and impalpable point.’” (Inez Hayes Irwin)