What Does Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery Mean?

No doubt you’ve been told (or at least heard) at some point in your life that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”—most likely in an effort to calm your frustration over another person acting like or copying you in some way. Let’s take a close look at this extremely popular proverbial phrase, exploring its meaning as well as uncovering its origin… and more!

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What Does Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery Mean?

Many of the common phrases we discuss here at The Word Counter are idioms with figurative meanings. In other words, they don’t mean what they appear to. That’s not the case with this expression, however. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery means just what it says and can be taken literally. But to truly understand the phrase, you need to first understand the meanings of the individual words it contains. 

Imitation: the act of imitating, or following, mimicking, reproducing, or copying

Sincerest: the most honest, pure, or true

Flattery: the act of flattering, or showing or expressing admiration and respect

Knowing these definitions and putting them all together, it’s now easy to understand the meaning of the phrase imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: When someone copies or mimics someone else (what they do, what they wear and look like, what they say, etc.), it’s a sign that they genuinely respect and admire them. In other words, it’s a way of showing the person they’re emulating affection or appreciation, a way of paying them a compliment. It’s demonstrating that the person they’re imitating is one of their role models.

Here are some example sentences using the expression imitation is the sincerest form of flattery:

  • I used to get so annoyed when my little sister would copy everything I did; she’d eat the same foods as me, wear the same t-shirts as me, even stand or pose like me if we were in the room together. But my mom told me that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and helped me see that my sister just really looked up to and loved me. Now I like it when she mimics me. I feel special and admired.
  • When a kid in my school I barely knew dressed up as me for Halloween, I initially thought she was making fun of me and was very upset. But then I remembered that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I went up to her and told her I liked her costume, and she said she really liked my style and thought I was cool and fun. Now we’re great friends!
  • Last week, I wore my hair to work in a unique braided hairstyle and my coworker asked me how I did it. I showed her, and this week, she came to work wearing her hair the same way. I thought that was so neat! As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

It’s important to note, though, that sometimes a person can imitate another person without directly acknowledging that they respect or admire them, or even being aware they’re doing so. They can be paying them an implicit or perhaps unintended compliment. Unlike the instances discussed in the example sentences above, these moments can sometimes lead to the question: Is imitation really always the sincerest form of flattery? More in a moment. 

The Origin of the Expression

The cleric and writer Charles Caleb Colton appears to be the first person to have stated the saying exactly as we know and use it today, in his 1820 work Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words. But the idea shared by the phrase was expressed before then. Versions of the popular saying conveying the same thought can be found in works from the 1700s, including a biography of Marcus Aurelius and a piece by the writer and politician Eustace Budgell, in which he said, “Imitation is a kind of artless flattery.” Although artless sounds negative in this context, because Budgell’s statement does seem to have inspired the phrase we use today, the adjective likely has more to do with the idea that one can imitate without even being aware they’re doing so, making the imitation a pure or sincere form of flattery.

What Is a Proverb?

The popular expression imitation is the sincerest form of flattery is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Learn the meanings of many more proverbs and other common sayings here.

But Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery, Really?

As mentioned above, sometimes a person imitates another person without directly acknowledging that they respect or admire them, or even without being aware that they’re imitating and, thus, flattering someone else. This can be pure and innocent enough, but it can also be more intentional, leading many to believe that imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery after all. 

Take for example a fashion designer, architect, sculptor, musician, or other artist who purposely copies another creative’s work and then presents that artist’s work as their own. While the imitator may indeed admire and respect the original creator, it can seem more insulting than flattering to that artist. They may believe their copycats are in the wrong and not respectful but rather envious of their accomplishments, without the know how to succeed on their own. While those doing the mimicking might argue that they’re giving their own interpretation of what was previously made, creating art out of art. 

The Irish poet Oscar Wilde weighed in on the debate, elaborating on the proverb and concluding, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Though to some the truthfulness of the saying is in question, as a proverb, it serves to express a universal idea: that in general, imitation conveys some sense of admiration. 

Summary

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery is a proverb expressing the idea that when someone copies or otherwise emulates another, they’re demonstrating sincere respect for that person. Because they’re showing that they want to be like them in some way (whether that’s in how they talk or dress, style their house, what they do for a living, etc.), they’re paying them a compliment and expressing admiration for them. The proverb appears to have first been coined by Charles Caleb Colton in the 19th century, though the idea that imitation is a way to honor someone was around long before Colton wrote it down and the saying caught on.