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English is not my native language. I am confused about the usage of these four words: slander, defame, vilify, and calumniate.

They are all verbs with almost the same meaning and I don't which one should I use in any situation. Are there any big differences in usage? For instance, is one more frequently used than the others? Are there any that are obsolete or not commonly used?

I am particularly interested in knowing if there are contextual differences in usage, like when someone says a bad thing to me in daily life, in business, or in any formal or informal situation. I would like to know how native English speakers use them.

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If a word is obsolete, a good dictionary will tell you so. – American Luke Nov 6 '12 at 1:46
Samuel, you may also wish to visit the stackexchange site for English language learners. This is still under development and not yet accepting questions, but it will do so when interest reaches a critical mass. – StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 3:01
@Luke: most dictionaries will tend to either leave out the word or indicate only the most extreme cases. Also, a dictionary doesn't do comparisons, so they won't say that calumniate is rarer and more formal than slander (but all of these words are of a fairly formal register). – Mitch Nov 6 '12 at 14:53
up vote 5 down vote accepted

You defame by publishing information hurting good reputation - possibly embarrassing, claiming incompetence or negligence.

You vilify if you defame by presenting the person's actions to be evil. Posting photos of someone sleeping under a tree, drunk may be defaming. Photo of that person raising a hand on a child is vilifying. Also, presenting normally mostly benign actions, making them to appear as evil is called vilifying (e.g. claim a woman who wears a red dress is "dressing like a whore")

Slander is a defamation that is false. (note for a long time in England one could win a lawsuit for defamation even if the defaming claim was proven true. Slander is always a defamation which is a lie)

I'm sorry but I won't give you any details on calumniate, I can only guess that's not a very frequently used synonym for slander. I think it implies verbal (or textual) form of slander, which on itself may take other forms (performing, parodying) but don't quote me on that.

You should also note libel (per StoneyB's comment) which is the same a slander except committed in a fixed/permanent form - slander is always in a volatile form (speech, gestures), while libel is fixed - in writing, as a picture, video, voice recording etc.

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1.The difference between slander and defame is: the defamation of defame can be true.But the slander always is false 2. vilify is you writing not saying . right? – Samuel Nov 6 '12 at 2:40
@Samuel 'Writing not saying' distinguishes libel from slander. This article on Wikipedia discusses legal dimensions of defamation. – StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 2:52
Calumniate is a very rare word, derived from calumny, and is basically the same as slander. Note that vilify in informal or semiformal often means little more than calling somebody rude names. – StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 3:00
Actually I still not know when to use vilify. Can i consider that defame is the father word of slander and vilify . Any situations can use defame. – Samuel Nov 6 '12 at 3:11
@Samuel: Vilifying is making someone appear evil (a criminal, a murderer, a thief etc), and not merely disreputable (lazy, stupid, incompetent). Something to elicit hate and not just disrespect. – SF. Nov 6 '12 at 3:18

In some contexts, these words are interchangeable, but each has a different shade of meaning.

Calumniate means to falsely or maliciously accuse, especially of a crime. Defame and slander mean to spread tales about a person so as to damage their reputation, but defame refers more to the intended result while slander refers more to the action taken. Vilify means to make vile, generally by slandering.

See OneLook.com for links to many general reference works containing definitions and examples of usage.

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Slander is to defame by telling a lie. Calumny is to defame by telling what I know to be true with the intention of sullying someone's good name. In the case of calumny,the information is confidential and although it may reveal illegal or unethical behavior performed in the past, guilt or innocence has been resolved in some way or the revelation of it may produce more harm than good.

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