definition of verbal abuse / definition of verbal abuser

an original definition by J. E. Brown

Main Definitions on This Page


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verbal abuse
“Verbal abuse” is any statement of disapproval which is undeserved and which tends to cause lasting scars.

To make the above definition clear, we will need to precisely define the terms:

disapproval which tends to cause lasting scars

Subdefinition C1. For purposes of the above definition, “disapproval which ... tends to cause lasting scars” is defined as any expression of a disapproving or dismissive personal opinion, or the addition of such an opinion to a statement of objective fact.


Subdefinition S1. For purposes of the above definitions, these “scars” are self-doubts which the criticism gives the victim, {You’re reading “Definition of Verbal Abuse” by J. E. Brown.}

  1. and specifically self-doubts about the victim’s ultimate personal worth,
  2. whether the criticism was direct or indirect, i.e., clearly stated or implied,
  3. whether or not yelling was involved,
  4. whether the hurt feelings subside in an hour, or a month, or never at all.
  5. whether the victim dismisses the self-doubts in an instant, or in an hour, or a month, or never at all. This length of time is immaterial because a self-doubt comes to an end (dismissal occurs) only when the victim finds evidence to disprove it, and so the ability to dismiss a self-doubt comes from the victim’s power to think and learn. The victim’s greater or lesser ability to do this does not diminish or justify or excuse someone else’s cruelty, just as a surgeon’s ability to save the life of a shooting victim does not lessen the fact that the shooter is a danger to society.
Note{Read this comp1ete article at .}
deserved, undeserved

Subdefinition D. Many definers of verbal abuse refer to a concept of “deserving” in their definitions. A full definition of “deserve” will not be attempted here, but the author assumes that the definition of “deserve” is derived in part from these basic ground rules:

  • D1. An accusation of wrongdoing is deserved (and therefore not abusive) if it meets all of these criteria:
    • (1) it is truthful, and
    • (2) it is made against the wrongdoer by the victim of the wrongdoing or by the victim’s defender, and
    • (3) it is made in the course of stopping or punishing the wrongdoing.


    • (to 1 above:) An accusation of wrongdoing is not deserved (and is moreover abusive) if it is false.
    • (to 2 above:) Uninvolved third parties who have not been wronged by the wrongdoer in question have no standing to make the accusation.
    • (to 3 above:) Accusations made long after the wrongdoing has stopped serve no preventative purpose and so are difficult to justify as deserved. Accusations made long after punishment/correction may amount to double jeopardy.

    The above rules account for/satisfy the finding/knowledge that upstanding citizens (who pride themselves on doing right) report feeling abused when falsely and maliciously accused of wrongdoing.

  • D2. A verbal reduction/attack on someone’s self-image is undeserved if it does not manifestly/obviously serve the victim’s immediate happiness more than it serves the speaker’s.
    → Rule D1 takes precedence over Rule D2.

    Abusers are often heard using the excuse “But I’m saying this for your benefit!” when delivering an insulting opinion. That’s why the word “happiness” is used in D2, in place of “benefit”. Abusers may compensate by claiming “But I’m saying this for your happiness!”; that’s why “manifestly” and “immediate” were added. If the victim is manifestly, immediately displeased about a reduction of his/her self-image, then the reduction is abusive and an attack.

  • D3. A verbal attack on someone’s harmless pleasures (which harm/wrong no one) is always undeserved.
  • D4. In no case can someone deserve a punishment that is worse than the original crime.
personal opinion

Subdefinition PO. For purposes of the above definitions, “personal opinion” is defined as any opinion about a person’s ultimate or current personal worth.

personal worth

Subdefinition PW. For purposes of the above definitions, “personal worth” is defined as a person’s worth, value, knowledge, competence, skill(s), ability OR personal ability, social ability (ability to achieve or maintain a position in a social hierarchy), attractiveness, fitness for duty, professionalism, judgment, ethics, goodness, character, honor, honesty, alleged motivations, etc., or any opinion about a person’s class, creed, race, etc.; in short, the sum total of personal attributes in which a person may take pride or feel shame/embarrassment. Note {You’re reading “Definition of Verbal Abuse” by J. E. Brown.}


Subdefinition WD. A definition of “wrongdoing” will not be attempted here. The author assumes that “wrongdoing”, “doing wrong”, and “wronging someone” are synonymous, and that “wronging” means “depriving someone of a right”, but further defining right and wrong is beyond the scope of this article.

verbal abuser
The definition of “verbal abuser” is somewhat more broad than simply “a person who commits verbal abuse”:

A “verbal abuser” is someone who not only {You’re reading “Definition of Verbal Abuse” by J. E. Brown.}

  1. commits an act or acts of abuse, but also
  2. cannot or will not change his or her ways: goes beyond using the tactics listed under “verbal abuse” and adds to those an unrepentant attitude, including
    1. any attempts to escape blame by trivializing and watering down the abuse, for example by suggesting that the victim misinterpreted an innocent or harmless action as abuse and therefore is exaggerating; for example by adding the words “alleged”, “perceived”, etc., before the word “abuse”; or
    2. a habitual tendency to display unconcern for the injury done to the victim, or
    3. an ongoing lack of remorse for his or her own abusive actions. This lack of remorse is often displayed by criticizing or nitpicking the victim’s reaction to the abuse. Or
    4. a pattern of re-offending in ways for which he or she has already been corrected. {Read this comp1ete article at .}

Definitions 2b and 2c are necessary in order to recognize and count derision and sneering (laughing at the victim’s misfortune, 2b) and rubbing the victim’s face in what happened (2c) as part of the overall pattern of abuse, and to hold the abuser responsible for them.


  1. It is possible to accidentally commit a single, isolated abusive act without becoming an abuser.

enabler of verbal abuse
Similar to definitions of “verbal abuser” 2a, 2b, and 2c:

The enabler is a third party who aids and abets the verbal abuser by defending the abuser’s actions. The enabler is generally a friend/confidant of the victim, and may not even know the abuser, but nevertheless takes the abuser’s side, and sees the dispute from the abuser’s point of view.

An “enabler of verbal abuse” is someone who {You’re reading “Definition of Verbal Abuse” by J. E. Brown.}

  1. does not necessarily commit the act or acts of abuse himself or herself, but who
  2. displays an approving and supportive attitude (or at most a token disapproval) toward the abusive behavior of others, including
    1. attempts to help the abuser escape blame by trivializing and watering down the abuse, for example by suggesting that the victim misinterpreted an innocent or harmless action as abuse and therefore is exaggerating. The enabler will often try to shift blame onto the victim, by suggesting that the victim’s perceptions (not the abuse) are the problem. In writing, the enabler will often put scare quotes around the word “abuse”, or will use the phrase “so-called” (example: “I don’t see the problem with this so-called ‘abuse’ you’re talking about”). When speaking, the enabler will often replace the scare quotes with a sarcastic emphasis on the word “abuse” (a half-second pause or clearing of the throat, followed by a slower, careful enunciation of the emphasized word), plus a rolling of the eyes and/or a raising of the eyebrows (all of which together means “You might call it abuse, but I wouldn’t”). May also add these words in place of “so-called”: “alleged”, “perceived”, “imagined”, etc.; or {Read this comp1ete article at .}
    2. A habitual tendency to display unconcern for the injury done to the victim,
    3. or an ongoing lack of concern for the abuser’s abusive actions. This lack of concern is often displayed by criticizing or nitpicking the victim’s reaction to the abuse, as if the reaction were the cause of the problem.

Enablers typically also apply peer pressure to silence the victim’s complaints. Enablers aren’t good at sympathizing, and are often heard advising victims to smile and cheer up, which shifts the focus away from the victim’s troubles and onto the enabler’s need to feel comforted and entertained by the victim.

Risk Factors: I believe enablers to be at increased risk for slipping into full-blown abusiveness, due to their tendency to see the world the way an abuser does. Also I suspect many enablers secretly carry their own histories of abusiveness, which would explain why they so readily stand up for other abusers.

Related Concepts:

  • identification with the aggressor; Stockholm Syndrome; abuser-defender personality disorder; verbal abuse sympathizer.

3rd edition 09 May 2016
2nd edition 09 Jan 2005
1st edition 01 Jan 2005

about the author

J. E. Brown, relationship activist, decided in 1987 that verbal abuse will be wiped off the planet.

He has been working on it ever since.

While writing a book on relationships, he occasionally designs online surveys and writes educational materials for this web site.

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