“It all started when I served a smoked salmon pâté starter with Aquavit, a Scandinavian alcoholic drink made from caraway seeds. You drink it in one go, like a shot, and I thought it would compliment the starter and make my dinner a real social event”.
(Countryfile star Julia Bradbury explaining how she fell out with Edwina Currie, Daily Mail Weekend supplement, 7 November 2009)
Other than the decision to serve Aquavit to Edwina Currie, can anyone spot the mistake here? It is, of course, the use of the word “compliment” to mean “complement”.
Complement has the sense of perfecting, completing or enhancing something, of going well with something or “setting it off”. Complementary colours (and flavours) enhance each other; complementary therapies are so called because they are used alongside, and complement, mainstream medical treatments.
Compliment, as everyone knows, means “to pay a compliment to; to flatter with polite and delicate praise”. A guest could compliment the starter (or more correctly, perhaps, compliment the cook on the starter), but it would be very odd for an aperitif to do so. Complimentary can also have the sense of something which is given away for free, as a courtesy. If a restaurant were to offer a free shot of Aquavit to every customer, it could quite correctly be described as “complimentary”.