"I acknowledge freely that I have had hard feelings against Mr. Ballou for abusing me and calling me a logarithm, which is a thing I do not know what, but no doubt a thing considered disgraceful and unbecoming in America..."A Comedy Trope about people being offended by words they don't know. Alice is speaking to Bob about something. In the course of the dialogue, Alice calls Bob eloquent, or valiant, or perhaps "a badass". Not knowing what a badass is, Bob demands to know if she thinks he has hemorrhoids. This is often, but not always, a case of Compliment Backfire. See also You Keep Using That Word for another way to take an unfamiliar word, invent a meaning, and assume it's the one everybody uses. Pretty much the inverse of Insult Backfire. Contrast Malaproper. Particularly unfortunate choices of words can be Mistaken for Racist. By the way, a logarithm of a number refers to the value a given base number must be raised to the power of to produce the original number. As in the logarithm of 16 to base 4 is 2, because 4 to the power of 2 is 16.
— Ollendorf, Roughing It
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- George Carlin had one where he talks about how he doesn't like some foods because of the way they sound. In this case, succotash. "What did you call me, you fuck?" "Hey, cool out, cool out. It's lima beans and corn. Cool out."
- In a Running Gag, Groo the Wanderer becomes violently enraged whenever someone calls him a "mendicant," even though he has no idea what the word means.note In issue #100, Groo learns to read (having been illiterate all his life) and he does learn what "mendicant" means.
- Paperinik New Adventures: in a bonus comic, Angus, needing to create a distraction, walks to the biggest and dumbest-looking guy in a crowded room and has a few words with him.
Angus: Really you don't mind that guy [points in a random direction] calling you a dim-witted, brutish and overly ignorant ape?
Big guy: Did he call me overly?!
Sid the Sexist: Well, I must admit...
Big Dave: DIVVUN CAAL ME MUSTARD MITT! [punch]
- In PS238, Zodon's "Barry Ween" chip causes him to insult Ed and Dom by referring to Ed as a "Geranium" (note that he was trying to insult him either way, but whatever profanity he was supposed to be saying changed due to the chip). Ed is more confused than insulted.
- Archie Comics: Moose, the typical strong guy with limited intelligence, will confuse words that are unknown to him with words of a completely different meaning.
Moose: "Duhhh hey! Who are you calling an idiom!?"
- In Chapter 1 of Luminosity, Bella talks about how she wants to take notes on people's names and appearances, but doesn't because of an incident in eighth grade when someone she described as "wee" in her notebook retaliated by throwing it into a puddle in the lavatory.
- The Roommates chapter of This is the life: A tale of a human in Equestria has this exchange:
Octavia: You're a perverted swayback ass!
Self Insert main character: A perverted what?!
Films — Animation
- Inversion: In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Belle chuckles and tells Gaston that he is "positively primeval". Gaston, having no idea what she meant, takes it as a compliment, and thanks her for it. Though being who and what he is, Gaston would probably consider it a compliment either way.
- In Oliver & Company, after Georgette moans about breaking a nail, Francis mutters "Balderdash!", to which Tito defensively replies "What'd you call my woman, man?!"
Films — Live-Action
- In the French film Les Choristes, one of the teachers in a boarding school for delinquents wants to start a boys' chorus so he tests out each boy's voice. To the most feared delinquent of them all, he says, "You're a very good baritone." The kid tries to kick his ass.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) has one "insult" (actually a description) traded for another. Casey Jones reveals that he's uncomfortable spending the night in the Turtles sewer lair.
Donatello: You're a claustrophobic.
Casey Jones: Hey, you want a fist in the mouth? I've never even LOOKED at another guy!
- One of the students in Renaissance Man misunderstands the word "oxymoron" and asserts that he "ain't no ox-moron".
- In Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey:
Shadow: Chance, you're a genius!
Chance: I am not! What's a genius?
- In the film of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the orphans make pasta puttanesca for Count Olaf and his fellow actors. When Klaus announces that they've made "puttanesca," Olaf responds "What did you call me?" (This was likely intended as a Bilingual Bonus Getting Crap Past the Radar, since the name "puttanesca" actually is derived from the Italian word for "prostitute".)
- The character of Raymonde in the French film Hôtel du Nord is mainly famous for indignantly asking her interlocutor « Atmosphère ? Atmosphère ? Est-ce que j'ai une gueule d'atmosphère ? » ("Atmosphere? Atmosphere? Do I look like an atmosphere to you?")
- Two examples can be found in the American version:
Dr. Poole: She seems to have such nicely rounded diphthongs!
Snaps: That's what got her into this jam!
Connie: Even in the old days he was known as an honest crook.
Dr. Poole: That's an oxymoron.
Connie: Gee, you shouldn't oughta said that, Doc.
Snaps: Yeah, leave Connie alone. He does the best he can.
- Two examples can be found in the American version:
- In Che: Part One, Camilo Cienfuegos nicknames a Cuban revolutionary "Ventrílocuo" (ventriloquist), but said revolutionaire mistakes the word for a made-up insult: ventre-culo (culo means "ass"). Che Guevara quickly corrects him.
- In Jumping the Broom, the maid of honor tells Malcolm (who is blatantly hitting on her) that he wouldn't like her because she's a hermaphrodite. His response is that he doesn't care what religion she is.
- In the classic Australian comedy The Castle, the main character's lawyer is presenting his case in the High Court and the opposing lawyer tells the judge that the precedent just quoted was merely an example of obiter dictum. The main character, highly offended, yells "Was not!" For non-lawyers: judges decide cases based on the reasoning used in past decisions. If a reasoning was used to decide a case, judges are much more willing to follow it than if the past judge was imagining what-if scenarios and deciding how things would be decided in that situation. Those what-ifs are obiter dicta. Of course, even if you don't know your law, the reactions of the judge and lawyers are enough for watchers to realize this trope is in play.
- Comes up in the movie version of Richie Rich when the butler explains to Richie that "crib" is an idiom for "home" in the slang used by Richie's newfound friends. One of the kids misunderstands and asks "Who are you callin' an 'idiom'?"
- When Det. Thorne in Hellraiser: Inferno notes to Nenonen that his name is a palindrome, he angrily retorts with "What did you call me?"
- In After the Thin Man, one clue is that a note was written with hard words spelled correctly and easy words spelled wrong, in bad imitation of an illiterate person.
Polly: Whadaya mean illiterate? My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!
- Played with in Guardians of the Galaxy. This trope's humor is portrayed, but it is not actually this trope. Drax has a problem with metaphors. He knows exactly what a thesaurus is due to his in spite of his Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness, but finds it mildly insulting when another character calls him a book full of synonyms. What he actually does not comprehend is that the other character is not perfectly serious as he himself is.
Drax: Do not call me a thesaurus!
- Kevin Hart's cameo in The 40-Year-Old Virgin spells out the epitome of this trope:
Customer: Okay, well check this out though. First of all you're throwing too many big words at me. Okay now, because I don't understand them I'm gonna take 'em as disrespect.
- As quoted above, Mark Twain's Roughing It is the Trope Namer.
- In Wyrd Sisters, the ghost of Verence I calls Granny Weatherwax a "doyenne amongst witches". She's clearly ready to be affronted, though she's cautious enough not to haul off and yell at him until she can determine for sure what it means ("senior/superior").
- In Soul Music, Albert calls young Susan a "chit of a girl". The Death of Rats anticipates this trope, and insists that Quoth explain to her that "chit" only means a small girl.
- Interesting Times: "He called me venerable!"
- In Feet of Clay, Vimes is told that Nobby is entitled to a coat of arms. He goes back to the Watch House and says "Nobby, you're armigerous!" This is taken by Nobby to mean, while not quite an insult, something for which he might need "a special shampoo." When one barman is informed that Nobby is a Peer, he assumes it is used in the verb sense rather than the "-of the realm" sense.
- In Unseen Academicals, Glenda is offended when Mr. Nutt tries to flatter her by calling her "fecund"note After hastily looking the word up she's merely embarrassed, and Glenda gently explains to Nutt why that might not be a good word with which to compliment women.
- In The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Sticky's girlfriend dumps him for remarking on her "pulchritude." It means beauty.
- Daisy Miller, when the Annoying Younger Sibling is talking about how he hates Rome:
Randolph: I hate it worse and worse every day!
Winterbourne: You are like the infant Hannibal.
Randolph: No, I ain't!
- In Neverwhere, Mr. Vandemar at one point confuses the word "circumlocution" for something else, and indignanty responds that he hasn't got one. He is quickly corrected by Mr. Croup.
- In a Sonic the Hedgehog children's novel, Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension, an imaginary dragon creature threatens to redo the universe with his allies (the Mythos creatures) and remake it In Their Own Image. In the process, he claims he would erase "you [Sonic] and your ilk". Tails responds indignantly with "I'm a fox, not an ilk!" "Ilk" means "kind", as in things of a similar type, and he was threatening to remove all life forms the universe considers normal, or real. This book was made in 1993, before Tails was established to be a genius.
- The short story A Palavra Mágica (the Magic Word) by Portuguese author Vergílio Ferreira is centered around the chaos sown in a rural village after a heated dispute in which one of the participants calls the other "innocuous", with neither of them knowing what the word really means. The word, corrupted to "inoque" then "noque", then becomes known as a horrifically vile swear.
- In Dodger by Terry Pratchett, Mrs Mayhew describes Dodger as an astute young man. He apologizes and says his best trousers are in the wash.
- In Harry Potter, when Vernon Dursley is called a Muggle, he gets angry and automatically assumes he's being insulted, even though he doesn't know what that means. Of course, the slur being derived from the English word "mug" — "someone who's easy to fool" might have something to do with it.
- In Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Schweik when Schweik and Marek are stuck in a prison carriage they are bored and Marek mocks the corporal in charge with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. Works as expected.
Marek: If I call you an embryo, you'll forget the word [...] before the next telegraph pole flashes by.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's If This Goes On, Zeb does this deliberately, demonstrating that language can be weaponized. Unfortunately, the exact words aren't given, but John's reaction is:
"You leave my mother out of this!"
[after John calms down]
"But what did I say? All I said, in fact, was that you were the legitimate offspring of a legal marriage. Right? What is insulting about that?"
"But—" I stopped and ran over in my mind the infuriating, insulting, and degrading things he had said — and, do you know, that is absolutely all they added up to. I grinned sheepishly. "It was the way you said it."
- In Andrei Belyanin's My Wife Is a Witch, the protagonist Sergey is a humble poet whose wife turns out to be a witch. After she vanishes, his personal Good Angel, Bad Angel suggest he go into the "dark worlds" (magical parallel realities) to find her. In the first of the worlds, he is captured by zealous Jesuit monks and accuse him of sorcery (in retrospect, wearing a black suit-and-tie is probably not wise during the Dark Ages). At his trial, he decides to use his debate skills and logic to convince the elder monks that he's not a sorcerer. Unfortunately, his speech ends up being full of so much legalese that it results in Stunned Silence, after which the monks, now utterly convinced that he's trying to cast a spell on them, order him captured and executed.
- There's a variant in "Famigerado", a short story by Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa. A local bandit goes to a doctor hoping the educated man can explain what means the word in the title (translation: "infamous"), which a cop has described him as. The medic says it's a compliment akin to "notorious", and the guy buys it.
- On The Suite Life of Zack and Cody episode "The First Day of High School", Cody says "kudos" to the school bully, who answers, "What did you just call me?"
- Get Smart:
- During a Hunting the Most Dangerous Game episode, the bad guy calls Max a "Homo sapien. " Max replied: "Hey, I'm as normal as the next guy."
- Another example deals with Hymie the Robot, and why he shouldn't date the Chief's niece.
Chief: Max, Hymie is a cybernaut.
Max: What's his religion got to do with it?
- Later on, after Max learns that the Chief's niece has fallen for Hymie:
Max: Hymie is a cybernaut.
Phoebe: Uncle Max, I'm ashamed of you. A person's religion doesn't make any difference.
- A sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show had a girl asking her friend what "satiated" meant, and then phoning her boyfriend to apologize for what she had done after he had said he was satiated following sex.
- The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Bad Eggs". In this case he may have known what the word meant; he was just genuinely unsure if that was a compliment or insult.
Giles: I suppose there is a sort of... Machiavellian ingenuity to your transgression.
Xander: I resent that! Or possibly thank you.
- And over on Angel, after everyone loses their memories:
Wesley: The cross obviously doesn't affect me or our friend, [points to Gunn] the pugilist.
Gunn: Oh, yo' ass better pray I don't look that word up.
- In an episode of That '70s Show, Hyde is trying to teach Fez to pick up girls by being cool and aloof. Fez hears it as Hyde calling him a "loof", which is apparently an insult in his native language (whatever the heck it is).
- A recurring sketch from the series Balls of Steel features the "Militant Black Guy", who always takes great offense to what he thinks are racial slurs, but are obviously totally innocent terms in context. For instance, when he enters a bakers and is shocked to hear the cake he asked for is called a black forest gateaux.
- On an episode of Castle, a safe deposit box belonging to a mob figure is broken into. The mobster claims it contained his stamp collection. One of the cops asks him how long he has been a philatelist. His response is "Hey! I don't roll that way!"
"Billiards, darts, these are things you're adroit at, Sam."
"Listen, nobody calls me a 'droit'."
- On Psych season four, Juliet calls Shawn "prophetic," who childishly retorts that she's the one who's prophetic.
- The Wire. Brother Mouzone says to his associate Lamar about finding a guy in a gay bar, "You're the perfect bait. They'll see you as conflicted; your homophobia is so visceral." Lamar replies, "You see that? I ain't even stepped inside the joint yet, and you callin' me a cocksucker."
- A variant on Home Improvement: Randy actually does mean to insult Tim, but not in the way he thinks.
Randy: You're acting like some tyrannical fascist!
Tim: [to Jill] Did he just call me a dinosaur?
- On The Big Bang Theory, similar to the variant in Home Improvement:
Leonard: Okay, I understand your impulse to try to physically intimidate me. I mean, you can't compete with me on an intellectual level and so you're driven to animalistic puffery.
Kurt: Are you calling me a puffy animal?
- On How I Met Your Mother, when he tries breaking up with Natalie by saying she's "not the one":
Ted: I can't explain it. ... It's ineffable.
Natalie: [livid] ...I'm not F-able?
- Inverted in The Sing-Off, where Ben Folds joked "Are you calling me a sesquipedalian?" The joke is that he is and knows exactly what that word means, and his use of it is proof.
- A first-season episode of Night Court involved a woman who remarried after her husband was declared dead, only to have him return to her life. Hubby #1 is a career soldier, and #2 is a nerd. #2 criticizes #1 for his use of violence as "typical homo-sapien behavior". #1 responded by saying "I never even hugged my father."
- In the Eighties episode of The Supersizers Eat, Giles's character offers Sue's character a Pop Tart, and she assumes he's calling her one.
- In an episode of Gilligan's Island, the Howells are scandalized by the Professor's Techno Babble.
- Eureka: A Running Gag has Sheriff Carter mistaking terms like "p-brane" as insults to his intelligence.
- In The Pirates of Penzance, Major-General Stanley asks the pirates "You're not thespians, are you?" Depending on the production, the pirates' reaction to this can be priceless.
- In You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, one number has a bunch of the kids getting in an argument in the middle of singing "Home on the Range". Lucy tells Sally that "[Linus] said — he said you were — an enigma!" This shocks the rest of the kids, and Sally spends the rest of the song alternating between being mad and asking "What's an enigma?"
- The Nameless Mod: has this quote from a Board Guest: "I can't believe the moderators won't do anything! Every time I ask something, people call me a faq!"
- In the DS translation of Chrono Trigger, after making him generous through his ancestors, one of the Porre Mayor's daughters in 1000 AD says "Everybody says Daddy's magnanimous, but he says he's just big-boned."
- In a Final Fantasy-related example, this video involves asking random passersby what a Chocobo is. At least one person interprets the word as a slur.
- In the "Beauty and the Beast" episode of Brows Held High:
- Oancitizen says the word "orphic". While it isn't clear if Some Jerk with a Camera thinks it's an insult, it is clear that he doesn't think it's a particularly nice thing to say, especially in front of kids.
- A guy later punches Oancitizen in the face for saying Cocteau in front of his kids.
- In the Steam Train series on VVVVVV, Ross misunderstanding something Arin said leads to them inventing the character of Dinkles, a Hollywood Nerd who's also a buff Jerk Jock and a bully. Arin imagines him using this exact trope, leading to this exchange:
Dinkles: You're such a polynigmion!
Jock: What the... I don't even know what that means! How could I be offended by that?
Dinkles: When you know what it is, you're gonna be super offended! In like, ten years, when you take Trig 7, you're gonna be super, super offended!
Ross: Can you imagine the guy, he's just, like, "Whatever, man", and he actually gets to Trig 7 and he starts crying in class?
Jock: HE CALLED ME A POLYNIGMION! THAT FUCKING ASSHOLE!
- "I'm not a homophone! I write Slash Fic!"
- Similarly, there's a semi-Memetic Demotivational Poster that features a forum exchange between a former stripper and someone else asking if her being "former" means she'd retired. The former stripper mistakes it for retarded, and Hilarity Ensues.
- This story on Not Always Right, where a cashier uses the word "oxymoron" and a customer thinks the cashier insulted him.
- The Cow and Chicken episode "Black Sheep of the Family" features the... well, black sheep of the family (a literal black sheep). Everyone would mistake his Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness for insults or swearing.
- A Running Gag on Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain is Elmyra scolding Brain for being a "naughty-waughty potty mouth" whenever he uses a big word she doesn't understand.
- Pesto from the "Goodfeathers" cartoons uses something similar to this trope. From their first episode:
Squit: I wanna be a tough bird, like you, Pesto.
Pesto: Whaddaya mean by that?
Squit: I just mean you're tough, that's all.
Pesto: Are you sayin' I'm an overdone piece of meat? Is that what you're sayin'?
Squit: No, that's not what I'm saying.
Pesto: I am tough?
Squit: Yeah, that's what I'm sayin'.
Pesto:: DAT'S IT!!!! [he starts to beat up Squit]
- Also happens with "Rita and Runt". Rita describes Runt's actions as "chivalric". Runt apologizes.
- Pesto from the "Goodfeathers" cartoons uses something similar to this trope. From their first episode:
- This is probably how the word "nimrod", originally the name of a great hunter from the Bible (and thus a nickname for a hunter), became to mean "a fool, a klutz." In a popular Looney Tunes short, Bugs Bunny called Elmer Fudd a "poor little Nimrod," and the kids watching it thought it was some fancy insult they never heard before.
- SpongeBob SquarePants:
- After Squidward finds himself accidentally stuck down a deep well with SpongeBob and Patrick:
Squidward: Could you not stand so close? You're making me claustrophobic.
Patrick: What does claustrophobic mean?
SpongeBob: It means he's afraid of Santa Claus.
Squidward: No, it doesn't.
Patrick: Ho, ho, ho! [giggles]
SpongeBob: Stop it, Patrick; you're scaring him!
Patrick: Ho, ho, ho!
Squidward: It's not working, Patrick.
- In "Frozen Face-Off" SpongeBob takes offense to Sandy using the word "simulacrum" to describe Plankton's robotic double that they just destroyed.
- After Squidward finds himself accidentally stuck down a deep well with SpongeBob and Patrick:
- Done a few times in Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, such as Edd's reaction to Eddy's side of the story in "Once Upon An Ed"
Edd: Pure fiction, Eddy. Your exaggerated tale can only be described as cockamamie!
Ed: Tsk, tsk, tsk, I have never heard such language.
- In one episode of Time Squad, after arriving in Sweden, a guy approaches Tuddrussel and says "Guten Morgen!"note . Tuddrussel automatically assumes he's being insulted and decks the guy. Larry 3000 scolds him and says the guy said, "Good morning."
- A rather serious, if brief example on Davey and Goliath, a French cobbler says to Davey's little sister Sally, "Dulce, dulce," or "sweet." The children not only take it as an insult, but tell their father, which leads to problems when Sally is missing and the father confronts the cobbler over where she is.
- In The Powerpuff Girls:
Roach Coach: I am the future ruler of this planet, you stupid biped!
Bubbles: Who you calling biped?
- The Looney Tunes Show: In "Bugs & Daffy Get a Job", Dr. Wiseberg tells Daffy he has a deviated septum. Daffy slaps him in the face and declares "There's nothing wrong with my septum! [beat] What's a septum?".
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "The Return of Harmony, Part 1", Sweetie Belle calls Scootaloo a dodo. Scootaloo's response? "Don't call me things I don't know the meaning of!" (Though in this particular case, it actually was clearly intended as an insult.)
- On King of the Hill, Peggy asks the wrestling coach to let Connie on the team, and brings up Title IX, which is the American law that bans gender discrimination in sports, among other things. He replies, "Roe v. Wade has nothing to do with this."
- In Littlest Pet Shop (2012), after Blythe trounces Whittany and Brittany Biskit in a debate.
Blythe: [to Whittany and Brittany] Your rebuttal, ladies?
Brittany: Ugh! You're a butthole, Blythe Baxter!
- In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), after a legitimate insult to Michelangelo, Fishface calls Casey "the obligatory human ally". Casey shoots back that he's not "oblidary".
- There is an anecdote with frequently changing dramatis personae, where a professor or someone gets caught in an exchange of abuse with a fishwife or female pedlar, and finally reduces her to tears by calling her things like "a hypotenuse" or "an isosceles triangle!"
- An apocryphal story claims that during the 1950 Senate campaign in Florida, George Smathers delivered what was called the "redneck speech," in which he referred to his opponent, Claude Pepper, as "a shameless extrovert," whose brother was "a known Homo sapiens".
- There've been a number of highly publicized cases where people used the word "niggardly" and were accused of racism by people who assumed it was a racial slur. It really means "cheap" or "stingy", and is, in fact, completely unrelated to the n-word, having been borrowed from the Norse language. On the other hand, there's really no benefit to using "niggardly" instead of "stingy".
- Dallas County, Texas Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield (white) had to explain what a black hole is when fellow Commissioner John Wiley Price (black) took it as a racial slur, prompting Judge Thomas Jones (also black) to demand that Mayfield apologize for his "racist" comment.
- Similarly, a University of Pennsylvania student in 1993 got charged with racial harassment when he shouted at a crowd of mostly black sorority sisters creating a ruckus outside his dorm, calling them "water buffalo". While under prosecution he explained the term comes from Hebrew slang, "Behema", used by Jews to refer to a loud, rowdy person.
- The president of the Lake County, Ohio, NAACP misconstrued a "You mad, bro?" sign at a football game as "racial intimidation" against a losing team.
- Creationist Ray Comfort once took umbrage at being called a "bibliophile" on Facebook. Ironically the other person's response ("It means a lover of books. I never meant to cast that aspersion upon you.") could be interpreted as a Stealth Insult, calling Ray Comfort Book Dumb.
- Bertrand Russell allegedly once put down a lady by saying, "Madam, you are a parallelogram!"
- Eleazar Blaze, a captain of Napoleon Bonaparte's army, tells a variant of this: a colonel commanding a frontier fortress was told to be on guard because the equinox was approaching, meaning that nights would get longer. After reviewing his troops and fortifications, the colonel shouted: "Let that bastard of a General Equinox come here and we'll [censored] him."
- This trope can be inverted by small children. They hear a word that they think sounds like an insult, or an ideological term that they only hear used contemptuously by their ideologically opinionated parents, so that think it's inherently an insult. Cue kids referring to other kids they don't like by the political party that their parents hold in high contempt, despite not knowing what the word means.
- This interview concludes with the player saying (in German) that he only lost his nerves after his opponent called him "a pardon" — and yes that is a (French-derived) German word meaning "sorry" — not all that common nowadays, but still in use and understood by non Book Dumb people.