Suppose one makes a statement that is likely to be offensive to its recipient, but will not offend most third parties. Is there a word or expression for this type of statement?

Example: I see someone picking a pocket or "shoplifting," and yell, "Stop, thief!" The perpetrator is likely to be offended, but neutral third parties would likely applaud, rather than be offended by my yelling.

Counterexample: I call you a "sob." You're likely to be offended, but so would many, if not most, third parties.

The expressions that come to my mind are "calling a spade a spade," or "if the shoe fits," but neither quite "rings the bell" for me. Is there a better way to express what I'm describing?

  • In your first scenario, it's called "doing the right thing"! Your second scenario ("counterexample") may need a little refining because though there may be two audiences to your SOB comment, each audience consists of but one person at a time, unless you're saying that when you SOB someone, there is another person present who is also offended. If the latter pertains, then ignore my comment. Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 14:19
  • @rhetorician: My supposition was "how would a third party likely react if s/he overheard the comment?" Or we could even be "schoolchildren" and what would the teacher likely say if the other boy "tattled" and told the teacher, "Tom called me an sob."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 14:20
  • @Patrick Calinescu: Congratulations on your first (approved) edit.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 14:28
  • Truth is an absolute defence against a defamation suit (in the United States). Often quoted as "It's only slander if it isn't true". Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 14:31
  • Gotcha! Kind of an "affective equivocality." Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 16:04

3 Answers 3


The simplest term would be "insult":

insult — be offensive to somebody: to say or do something rude or insensitive that offends somebody

If you walk into a room and insult someone, it is unlikely that you will have insulted the entire room unless you used inappropriate language (or the bystanders were insulted through association.)

A more specific type of insult will reduce the chance of offending bystanders:

I insulted his character.

Do not insult my intelligence!

And so on. More colorful terms can be found in a thesaurus entry for insult. Some particularly apt choices:

  • shame
  • slander
  • affront
  • taunt
  • vituperation

Maybe what do you mean is "Don't beat around the bush"?


The phrase, "taking something out of context" comes to mind.

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