What is Vitriol?

R. Kayne

“Vitriol” is used to characterize a caustic though often literate verbal attack or argument posed in highly abusive terms. The word applied in this way comes from its meaning in chemistry, where oil of vitriol refers to sulfuric acid. In its purest form, oil of vitriol is tasteless, odorless, and found in abundance in many geographic areas, particularly among volcanic sulfuric crystals. The chemical industry uses vitriol in diluted form for a number of commercial applications that include battery acid, manufacturing fertilizer, and processing wastewater.

In politics, vitriolic rhetoric is often used to criticize opposition policies and policymakers.
In politics, vitriolic rhetoric is often used to criticize opposition policies and policymakers.

The term “sulfuric acid” may have replaced “oil of vitriol” in the manufacturing sector, but vitriol is still used as a characterization of speech. Vitriol is intended to demean, blame and censure the subject of the attack. It can indicate bitterness or deep-seated ill will, or a simple attempt to hurt or deeply offend.

Racists groups commonly use vitriolic language to attack those they perceive as threatening by attempting to make the victims of the attack feel inferior. Venomous language can include personal attacks of appearance that have no value beyond the intended insult.

In today’s political climate vitriol has become the bread and butter of at least one successful author, conservative columnist and talking head, Ann Coulter. A frequent guest on FOX News Network, Coulter has embraced an invective style that has singled her out among conservative and liberal pundits alike. Coulter’s vitriolic remarks distanced her even from her own conservative base when in one of her books and subsequent television interviews, she accused 9/11 widows of “enjoying their husbands' deaths.” Coulter also attended a 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference where she referred to a Democratic Presidential candidate as a homosexual slur. Many conservative newspapers that reportedly received complaints from their readerships subsequently dropped her syndicated editorial column.

While many can argue about degrees of acceptability or the difference between passionate debate and insult, vitriol is a form of speech that crosses the line of decency by general standards. Vitriol reviles, vilifies, insults, snipes and assaults. It goes beyond passion to become mean-spirited, and as such reduces the value of the argument when value is present at all.

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