Name Calling – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Suppose you have watched any political debate recently. In that case, chances are high that the participants resorted to “name-calling,” behavior you can also spot on any playground. Of course, the “names” in question are less than flattering.

Learn more about the meaning and origins of this expression in this post.


Name-calling” means using insulting words to describe someone you are arguing with or debating. In some cases, people offend entire groups through name-calling.

It is also the lowest (and worst) tier on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, a pyramid of rhetorical techniques.

Name-calling may or may not involve swear words and slurs. It includes accusing people of being stupid, idiots, incompetent, a wimp, or corrupt. In some contexts, name-calling is a form of bullying.

The alternative phrase “calling [someone] names” has the same meaning.

Example Usage

Are you wondering whether the term “name-calling” has a place in your everyday language? These examples might shed some light on that:

  • “May I also take this opportunity to remind Susie that this school has a policy against name-calling? Hurtful words like ‘crybaby’ have no place in this esteemed institution, and you will be punished next time you see fit to stoop so low.”
  • “The populist politician was famous for speaking his mind. Others might describe his rhetoric as name-calling, but his supporters felt he just told it like it was.”
  • “Tim was bullied as a child and still gets upset when people call him names. Now that he can defend himself, you are more likely to meet his fist than watch him cry.”


The phrase “name-calling” emerged in the 1800s. It followed the older term “calling someone names.”

Name-calling was defined as “the use of opprobrious epithets” as early as 1846. “Opprobrious” means scornful, contemptuous, or shameful, while an “epithet” is a word used to characterize someone.

Name-calling is using insults to describe someone or a group of people. People in the 19th century may have preferred words like “fool” or “dunce,” but language has grown more brutal over time.

You “call someone names” whenever you use an unflattering and hurtful word to describe them.

Name-calling also represents the lowest tier on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement. This pyramid describes the rhetorical tools politicians and others who engage in debate may use.

The most sophisticated way to disagree with someone is to address their core view directly. “Ad hominem attacks,” where debaters may say something like “this candidate has done bad things, so you shouldn’t trust him” to avoid engaging with his opinions, is the only form of debate less disturbing than name-calling.

You are most likely to encounter the phrase “name-calling” in the context of arguments that break out between children, but adults certainly share vile insults with one another too.

Phrases Similar to Name Calling

Instead of “name-calling,” meaning using purposely insulting words to describe someone or a group of people, you could also say:

  • Mudslinging — attacking someone’s character or actions in a deceptive way, especially in politics.
  • Slander — spreading false rumors.
  • Character assassination — calling someone’s character into question through malicious insults.

Phrases Opposite to Name Calling

If you don’t engage in name-calling, you may:

  • Think the world [of someone] — meaning you respect and admire the person.
  • Respect someone.

You may also target someone’s opinion rather than offering up insults.

What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct sayings are “name-calling” and “calling someone names.” Both mean using insulting language to characterize or attack a person or group of people.

Ways People May Say Name Calling Incorrectly

English learners must remember that calling someone’s name is not “name-calling.”

If you try to get Brenda’s attention by shouting her name, you aren’t calling her names, but just calling her. You are name-calling if you call Brenda an idiot.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Name Calling

Did someone say you’re an idiot, dumb, a coward, or a crybaby? You can say name-calling is the lowest form of rhetoric and tell them to stop bullying you.

You can also criticize others who turn to name-calling by “calling them out” (holding them accountable) for their behavior.


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