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Verbal abuse is a form of abusive behavior involving the use of language. It differs from profanity in that it can occur without the use of expletives. Whilst oral communication is the most common form of verbal abuse, it includes abusive words in written form.

According to the University of Cincinnati, there is no universally accepted definition of emotional or verbal attack.

Verbal abuse is a pattern of behavior that can seriously interfere with one’s positive emotional development and over time, can lead to significant detriment to one’s self-esteem, emotional well-being and physical state. It has been further described as an ongoing emotional environment organized by the abuser for the purposes of control.

The underlying factor in the dynamic of abuse can be viewed as the abuser’s low regard for him or her self. As the abuser may fear not being “good enough” and/or meeting other’s expectations, the abuser may attempt to place their victim in the position to feel or believe similar things about him or her self.

Verbal and emotional abuse can occur to one of any race, culture or sex, though the vast majority of reported cases are women. (Miller 1996, p. 179-180) [1] (Evans 1996, p. 211) [2]

Verbal abuse typically increases in intensity over time and often escalates to physical abuse as well.

In some countries, charges can be laid for verbal abuse under certain circumstances. Verbal abuse leaves no outer mark and no proof. With couples usually during intense verbal abuse, the target of the abuse usually suffers by having lower self-worth and low self-esteem. Because of this, victims may fall into clinical depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and become introverted. Verbal abuse, although not physically harmful and having no visible signs, is damaging nonetheless. Verbal abuse is arguably the most common type of abuse [How to reference and link to summary or text], and yet at the same time not looked at or taken nearly as seriously as the many other forms of abuse. In reality however, moderate to severe cases of verbal abuse in which the victim is under constant attack, especially a child, may be even more detrimental to a person or child's health than physical abuse or other forms of abuse. Verbal abuse starting from a young age may contribute to inferiority complex, machismo attitudes, and many other negative behaviors that plague so many people into adulthood. People that feel they are being attacked by a verbal abuser on a regular basis should seek professional counsel and remove themselves from the negative environment if at all possible. Staying around verbal abusers is in fact extremely bad for a persons overall wellbeing and all steps to change the situation should be pursued.

Legal aspects

Dependent on the abuse and situation, verbal abuse may constitute a crime in some countries.

  • In most of Europe, Canada, and South Africa, laws exist specifically prohibiting hate speech.
  • In the United States, verbal abuse is generally protected by the First Amendment. Direct insults, however, may be prohibited under the fighting words doctrine if likely to produce violence. There are no hate speech laws in the United States.
  • In South Africa, the crime of crimen injuria unlawfully, intentionally and seriously impairing the dignity of another covers a range of instances of verbal abuse.
  • Slander, libel and defamation are crimes in many countries.

List of words and phrases that can be verbal abuse

  • Referring to disability/medical conditions/aids e.g. Peg-leg, gimp, dummy, idiot, dumbo, scarface, spaz, retard, dunce, stupid, moron, peabrain, dickhead, nonce, thick or thicko, slow, and also saying doh! pronounced dur and comments on the way a person walks e.g he/she walks like a penguin and for someone who wears glasses using comments such as four eyes/specky four eyes, also making cruel jokes.
  • Referring to disfigurement/someone with a skin condition e.g. dirty, monster, frankenstein, asking have they been in a fire, from outer space, saying somebody doesn't wash etc.
  • Referring to someone's morals and behaviour e.g. Liar, cheat, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, goody two shoes, and in women, prostitute, harlot, whore, tart, hussy, slut, slag, scrubber, bitch, cow, cat, Jezebel, bastard, creep, teachers/boss's pet.
  • Referring to someone's weight and body shape e.g. fatty, fatso, fatass, lardy, lardass, beanpole, stick, jelly-belly, insect, skeleton and other comments such as, you'll break the scales.
  • Referring to someone still living at home with one or both parents, especially an adult e.g. momma's boy, big girl's blouse, calling them soft or a baby or saying comments like isn't it about time he/she cut the strings.
  • Referring to someone's sexual orientation e.g. backs to the wall, queer, faggot, dyke, carpet-muncher, girl, poof/poofter, nancy-boy, fudge-packer, etc.
  • Referring to someone trying to behave in a servile, obsequious, virtuous manner in an insincere way e.g. creep the rarer form of creep is creeping jesus worm, snake smarmy. The phrases two-faced, two-headed snake, and snake in the grass means someone is nice and acts honest when you are present, but they are unkind about you and/or other people and behave in a dishonest way when you are not there.
  • Referring to someone's social class and standing e.g. snob, beggar,toffee-nose, snooty, etc.
  • Referring to someone who reports wrong doing/anything immoral e.g. tattle-tale, telltale, gossip, blabbermouth, big mouth, motormouth, informer, mole, grass, sneak, and saying things like telling tales out of school, prissy, prim-and-proper
  • Referring to drugs/alcohol e.g. alky, druggie, wino, drunk/drunkard, smackhead, crackhead, junkie, methhead etc.
  • Words/phrases/actions in order to reject someone/make someone feel unimportant e.g. Ignoring, and saying things such as, Who wants to be with you?, not allowing someone to sit with you, not allowing someone to join in events, No boy/girl/woman/man would go out with you, saying people with disabilities/learning difficulties are pests, telling someone of a different race/ethnicity to get 'back to where they came from', being curt and unfriendly with someone daily, all the time or frequently, telling someone who has a facial/body disfigurement to leave the premises as they might be creating a 'health hazard/causing discomfort to other customers'

Making unkind comments/saying unkind words about someone's clothes, appearance, race, religion, ethnicity, what they drink and what they eat are also forms of verbal abuse.


  1. Miller, No Visible Wounds: Identifying Nonphysical Abuse of Women by Their Men, Random House Publishing Group, ISBN 9780449910795 .
  2. Evans, Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond (2 ed.), Adams Media Corporation, ISBN 9781558505827 .

See also

External links

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