Department of Linguistics & English Language, Lancaster University

Terms for Impoliteness

Terms in general

English, like other languages, has various terms that refer in some way to the notion of impoliteness. Rude is often used as a synonym of impolite , and of course both these terms have other synonyms. I used a computer to sift billions of words in order to establish which words could easily be swapped with impolite and then rude. The results are:


discourteous, presumptuous, hurtful, demeaning, insulting, flippant, bossy, unprofessional, unappreciative, overbearing, impertinent, insolent, disrespectful, distasteful, pushy, disloyal, nosy , ill-mannered, unbecoming, inconsiderate, unladylike , tactless, ungenerous, unsportsmanlike, blasphemous, thoughtless, boorish, derogatory, flirtatious, uncalled [for]


arrogant , selfish , obnoxious , cruel , sarcastic , stupid , ignorant , nasty , insensitive , disrespectful , abusive , cynical , ugly , vulgar , foolish , lazy , silly , unpleasant , angry , harsh , violent , funny , pathetic , offensive , irresponsible , ridiculous , stubborn , dumb , boring , inappropriate

Apart from the fact that impolite synonyms tend to have a more sophisticated air, note that rude synonyms can more readily be used to describe people as opposed to just behaviour.

Terms in academia

In linguistic pragmatics, the following terms are used for impoliteness related phenomena:

  • Impolite(ness)
  • Rude(ness)
  • Aggravation, aggravated/aggravating language/facework
  • Aggressive facework
  • Face-attack
  • Verbal aggression
  • Abusive language

In fact, these terms tend to be colonised by different academic areas. By tracking citations and subject areas, I established the following associations:

  • Impolite(ness) - linguistics and communication science
  • Rude(ness) - history in particular, humanities generally
  • Aggravation, aggravated/aggravating language/facework - rarely used
  • Aggressive facework - rarely used
  • Face-attack - rarely used
  • Verbal aggression - psychiatry and psychology
  • Abusive language - family studies and clinical psychology

What terms does the ordinary person use?

I used a computer to establish the frequency of impoliteness-terms in British and American English (combined). The following are listed in order of decreasing frequency, left to right:

rude , rudeness , verbal abuse , impolite , not polite , verbally abusive , verbal aggression , verbally aggressive , impoliteness

In fact, the only item to occur with decent frequency is rude . Rude occurs about 18,000 times in two billion words; impoliteness a mere 30 times.

However, the list of terms used above is based on what is used in academia. Maybe non-academics use completely different terms. In order to check this, I collected 100 diary-like reports from British undergraduates of conversations in which someone had made the reporter feel "bad". I asked the reporters to reflect on the conversation, including how they would describe it. Analysing the descriptive words, I identified six main semantic clusters, listed in order of decreasing frequency, left to right:

patronising, inconsiderate, rude, aggressive, inappropriate, hurtful

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this list is the ascendancy of "patronising". People most often get upset when someone is perceived to act in a way which presumes a position of power or superiority that they are not considered to have.

Who or what is termed impolite?

One way of understanding impoliteness is to look at what people are talking about when they use the term impolite. I scrutinised both uses of impolite and rude (impolite covers a subset of the meanings of rude).

  • Subjects regularly described as rude include: "doorman", "bouncer", "bartender", "waitress", "waiter", "yorker", "staff" and "french". "Doorman", "bouncer", "staring", "bartender", "waitress", "waiter" and "staff" nearly all relate to public service contexts, where people have expectations of "service" entitlements, which are not always met or are disputed. In addition, we find "yorker" (as in "New Yorker") and "french", suggesting that people evaluate national or place stereotypes as impolite.
  • Actions regularly described as rude include: "eavesdropping", "interrupting", "pointing", "ignoring", "declining", "inviting", "smoking", "listening" and "laughing". These actions give particular insight into the social underpinnings of behaviours regularly evaluated as impolite. Note, in brief, that "eavesdropping", "pointing" and "listening" relate to unwarranted intrusions; "interrupting" and "declining" relate to unwarranted impositions; "ignoring" relates to unwarranted exclusion; "laughing" relates to devaluing somebody; and "smoking" relates to what is allowed in a particular context (i.e. they break a prescriptive convention).

The dimensions along which impoliteness-related terms vary

Having (1) conducted extensive analyses of how impoliteness-related terms used, and (2) gained information from a questionnaire asking people about their own usage, I was able to organise the terms along the two key dimensions that emerged. One dimension concerns the degree of symbolic violence; the other dimension concerns the extent to which the term is associated with in-group impoliteness as opposed to out-group impoliteness. The figure below displays my results. The figure also displays a third dimension to do with gravity of offence. This is a hypothesis that terms referring to behaviours which are more symbolically violent and more likely to occur in in-group contexts (such as the family) are likely to be more offensive.

The figure displays my results