There was the following sentence in the article titled “Pope Francis tells Pope Benedict to stop rolling his eyes in meetings” in May 2nd New Yorker magazine:

Pope Emeritus Benedict’s return to the Vatican began on a sour note today as the current Pope, Francis, reprimanded him for rolling his eyes sarcastically during meetings, observers said.

The trouble started when the former Pope showed up at a meeting that “Benedict wasn’t even invited to,” a Vatican source said. After about ten minutes of suffering through Benedict’s sighing and eye-rolling, Francis “totally called him out on it,” the source said, adding, “What Benedict was doing was totally disrespectful. Plus, he is supposed to be retired, so he shouldn’t have been wearing his Pope costume.”

Though Oxford English Dictionary defines “call someone out” as

  1. summon someone to deal with an emergency or to do repairs

  2. order or advise workers to strike.

  3. (archaic) challenge someone to a duel,

none of the above definitions seems to fit to “Francis ‘totally called him out on it.’”
There is no entry of the idiom, “call someone out” in either Cambridge or Merriam Webster English Dictionary.

It looks like the phrase, “Pope Francis “totally called him out on it” to mean he was totally upset with Benedict’s presence accompanied with exaggerated gestures during the meeting, but I’m not sure. What does this sentence and idiom,'call sb out on stg' mean?

  • 1
    We still call people out to duels; only the swords and flintlock pistols are archaic. :) May 4, 2013 at 4:24
  • 2
    call out 2. To challenge to a duel. thefreedictionary.com/call+out
    – Kris
    May 4, 2013 at 5:06
  • Question. If “call sb out” means “3. (archaic) challenge someone to a duel” as OED defines, what does the word “totally” mean here? Does it mean ‘decisively’ or ‘outright’? Is the word, 'totally' necessary? May 4, 2013 at 6:32
  • 2
    'Totally' is used as an intensifier here. The use of totally as an intensifier seems to have like, totally become the way to speak among the younger generation these days. My daughter and her friends throw totallies into most of their sentences. And it appears to also have become fashionable in their circles to abbreviate it to just "totes". I'm not sure I totes agree with their choices.
    – Jim
    May 4, 2013 at 6:42
  • For the sake of the historical record (although it does not alter the relevance of the grammatical questions), the document being referenced is a work of satirical fiction. The language purportedly used by observers in the Vatican is like totally inappropriate.
    – Fortiter
    May 4, 2013 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


I would have never thought this expression had anything to do with duels, or guessed that dueling was the origin of this expression. After analyzing the phrase, though, I can see how that might be the case.

When I've heard this expression, it's been used to describe a situation where:

  • a group of people were gathered
  • one person said something that another person felt wasn't accurate
  • that other person publicly challenged the first person's claim

For example, I might recount the events of a meeting, and tell my coworkers:

In the meeting, Ralph said, "In the past two years, nobody has had more sales than I've had," but I called him out on it.

That would imply I publicly disagreed with Ralph in the meeting, putting pressure on him to either back up his claim with hard data, or else recant his statement altogether.

I doubt I'd actually use the phrase "call you out" in the meeting. In other words, I'd be unlikely to say to Ralph:

I'd like to call you out on that.

Instead, if I think Ralph's statement isn't entirely accurate, I might say something like:

Really? You think you're the top salesperson? By what standard? I'd like to see those numbers.

and then use the "called him out" expression later when describing what happened in the meeting.

I suppose that's a form of challenge, as Bill said, but I wouldn't consider that the same as inviting Ralph into the parking lot to settle matters. I'd say a roughly equivalent expression my be call to account, which one dictionary defines as:

call to account 1. To challenge or contest. 2. To hold answerable for.

Also, in the case where I think someone is deliberately lying, I might use the phrase call someone's bluff, which means:

call someone's bluff to challenge someone to give proof of his claims

I don't think I'd use the bluff expression in my example, though, unless I thought Ralph was simply lying outright. Deciding who has had the most sales can be a tricky business: are we measuring by the number of sales, the amount of revenue generated, or the amount of profit that's been earned? Ralph could indeed be at the top of one of those categories; in my hypothetical scenario, perhaps I don't think he's lying per se, but I think he might not be telling the whole story, either.

Getting back to the usage in the Times, the bluff idiom doesn't apply, because the former pope was being called out on his behavior, not some claim he was making.

If I was asked to reword the statement, I might suggest:

After about ten minutes of suffering through Benedict’s sighing and eye-rolling, Francis openly rebuked him for it.

which I think would convey roughly the same sentiment as the original.


Even though to call someone out means, among other things, to challenge someone to a duel, it also means, more generally, to challenge someone to a fight. Sometimes it's necessary to slightly change the dictionary meaning of a word or idiom to give it the proper meaning in context.

When the current pope chastises his recently abdicated predecessor for annoying him with his critical body language, then he's challenging: 5.a. (confronting) the former pope in public. It is a kind of duel: 2. All arguments and debates are verbal battles, and when the combatants are only a pair of frail and gerontologic warriors, it's still a challenge and still a duel. One will be supported and the other will lose some face.

  • Downvote for the use of the expression "When the current pope chastises" when the subjunctive "If the current pope were to chastise..." is required.
    – Fortiter
    May 4, 2013 at 13:08
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    @Fortriter: Did you read the article? The condition was met. The chastisement ("reprimand") happened. It was not hypothetical. I don't mind being downvoted for errors, but when you have to make something up to justify the insupportable, I can't accept it. You'll have to show me some kind of proof that "the subjunctive is required", especially when most professional linguists have declared that the subjunctive is as dead as whom (except in set phrases) & as optional as fewer in supermarket checkout lanes labeled "10 items or less".
    – user21497
    May 4, 2013 at 13:36
  • Rereading the link, I see it's a May Fool's joke. Never heard of Borowitz before. Both Yocihi & J.R. missed that this was a humor-blog post. Why didn't you mention it in your comment to me? I didn't read the last two paragraphs till just now. And if you're gonna be this petty, I recommend that you be consistent & downvote J.R. for his equally "egregious" reference to the Times rather than the New Yorker. (I won't, of course.) You can also explain why simple present doesn't satisfy the subjunctive function in this case. But you'd have to be a dishonest linguist to do it.
    – user21497
    May 4, 2013 at 14:06
  • 1
    "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" (present active) = "If the going were to get tough, the tough would get going" (subjunctive).
    – user21497
    May 4, 2013 at 14:12
  • My comment was intended as a light-hearted reference to your "complaint" (on english.stackexchange.com/a/113169/28951) about unexplained down-votes. I thought that someone with 17k rep could stand the loss for the sin of responding without appropriate reference to context (or in this case, plausibility) of the question. At least you get the opportunity to confirm why "I irritate a lot of people here & elsewhere".
    – Fortiter
    May 5, 2013 at 2:12

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