What is the idiom that can describe the action of making fun of somebody's already sensitive and weak spot for which s/he is already troubled or ashamed?

For instance, mocking somebody about his/her bankruptcy, past crime history, etc.


11 Answers 11


If you mock someone’s misery, you rub salt into their wounds, described in the Oxford Learner's Dicionary as:

to make a difficult experience even more difficult for somebody

This Dictionary of Idioms gives a fuller definition and example:

Rub salt into the wound/(someone’s) wounds to make (someone’s) sorrow, shame, regret etc worse, often deliberately: I was very disappointed at having to miss the concert, and my friends kept rubbing salt into the wound by telling me how good it was.

And two examples from the media, where rubbing salt into the wound specifically means mocking someone’s misfortune:

City fans mock Manchester rivals: [Manchester] United let a 3-1 lead slip to lose 5-3 at Leicester yesterday, before City took on Chelsea at the Etihad [stadium]. And cheeky Citizens fans took the opportunity to rub salt into their rivals' wounds with an aerial banner. “United we fall ― in cinemas soon," read the message flown over the Eithad.

Hilarious Comeback Joke Takes Off On Reddit After English Mockery: Last week, rugby fans around the world cruelly wallowed in England’s early World Cup exit. Several jokes were posted online and it seemed as if England’s closest neighbours were most keen to rub salt in English wounds.

  • 2
    I have to admit I never heard this one in English, +1 for making me realize that this quite common Swedish idiom had an identical English version! :-)
    – JHH
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 19:21
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    Well, I suppose you've never had a sadistic English-speaking friend. :)
    – Jacinto
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 19:32
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    Hehe. BTW thinking about it, it appears swedes must be just a tad less sadistic, since we only pour salt in people's wounds. We would never dream of rubbing it in. :-)
    – JHH
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 19:42
  • 2
    same for German! man, the Brits are cruel.
    – phil294
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 12:56

The idiom add insult to injury is broadly used for the context:

Fig. Cliché, to make a bad situation worse; to hurt the feelings of a person who has already been hurt.

Or add fuel to the fire could be a good candidate:

Fig. to make a problem worse; to say or do something that makes a bad situation worse; to make an angry person get even angrier.

[McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs]

  • 6
    +1 for "add insult to injury".
    – Jos
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 13:21
  • @Jos Thanks. I changed the order. I think "add insult to injury" is better. :-)
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 13:24
  • You beat me to this answer by 60 minutes! :P And congrats on scaling Mount 10k! Way to go...
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 13:25
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    Does "add insult to injury" have the nuance of both the insult and the injury being caused by the same person?
    – Kobi
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 9:54
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    Hmm, I would not use this. To me this would be like saying the following to a guy who got recently fired: Let's be honest, you quite suck at .... Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 16:00

The phrase "kicking a man when he's down" comes to mind.

This specifically touches on doing something to exacerbate suffering which should be sufficient on its own.

to do something bad to someone when you know they already have a lot of problems

His wife left him last month and I don't want to kick a man when he's down, but we simply don't have any more work for him.

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary via TFD

  • 6
    I personally prefer @Jacinto's "rub salt in their wounds" - for me, to kick someone when they're down would refer to taking an action, as opposed to just making fun. In the example you cited, although it's not explicitly stated, it appears that someone is being fired because the company doesn't have work for them - the firing is the "kick", and is somewhat unrelated to the man's wife leaving him. Making fun of someone for their wife leaving them, however, makes it hurt worse - like rubbing salt in a wound
    – Jake
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:46
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    Additionally, your own example shows that this phrase doesn't indicate intent. The person from your example doesn't want to kick the man while he's down, which seems at odds with the OP's description of "mocking" or "making fun". Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 11:09

If you want to refer to deliberately attacking something that someone is sensitive about, you could say they deliberately touched a nerve

Provoke a reaction by referring to a sensitive topic

Alternatively, you could say they attacked his achilles heel

A weakness or vulnerable point

Both definitions from the OED

  • What about the 'mocking' part?
    – user20865
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 11:59

To push someone's buttons

Draw a strong emotional reaction from someone

The response tends to be an angry one.

  • 1
    another excellent answer
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 15:48

Rubbing their face in it.

You teach a dog (wrongly!) to not soil the carpet by "rubbing their faces in it." You would literally put the dogs face in their own mess. When you do this to a person for something they are ashamed of already -- you are "rubbing their face in it".


You may have touched a sore spot there.

to refer to a sensitive matter that will upset someone.

  • an excellent answer
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 15:47
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    I usually hear this used when someone unintentionally brings up a topic that they then find out was upsetting to the other person. Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 8:44
  • True, rub salt in the wound would likely be my first choice. That said, I don't think mine is exclusively unintentional, and it brings a different tone and other connotations that may work better in certain contexts. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 14:03

One appropriate idiom might be hit where it hurts:

To do something which will upset someone as much as possible

If you want to hit her where it really hurts, tell her she's putting on weight again.

Another might be hit a nerve.

To upset someone by talking about a particular subject

I think I hit a nerve with my comments about divorce. She suddenly looked distressed and I knew I'd touched a raw nerve.


I'd suggest,

rub someone's nose in it

Bring something, especially an error or fault, repeatedly and forcefully to someone's attention. For example, I know I was wrong, but don't rub my nose in it. This expression alludes to the unkind practice of housebreaking a dog by rubbing its nose in its feces. [Mid-1900s] The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

rub it in

To make someone feel even worse about something; rub salt into somebody's wounds. Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms

dig up the dirt again/stir up the dirt [on someone]


informal : information about someone that could harm the person's reputation. She's been spreading dirt [=gossip] about her ex-husband.

To dig up (the) dirt on someone is to find out information that is harmful to that person's reputation. He's been digging up dirt on his political rivals. M-W

  • I like rub it in.
    – haha
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 1:33

I'd say it depends on the circumstances. If the person teasing means to stick it to the subject:

Rub salt into the wound.

However, if the subject's been in prison for a violent crime and is more bitter and angry than depressed and sad because of that (hence being prone to erupt):

Poke the bear.

  • Poking the bear is more generally just irritating someone when you anticipate potential backlash, and tends to apply better if you wouldn't be able to fight against that backlash. I don't think it carries any of the senses of, "making fun of a weak spot" or "the person already being ashamed" Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 18:35
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    @DoubleDouble Good point. I wish to challenge it, though. What if the bear being poked isn't the person themself but rather the shameful property and we're metaphorically poking the sore point of someone's point (the bear being the sore point, not the person)? Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 20:51
  • You could probably find a way to make it vaguely work, though I am skeptical of how well it would carry the right point across. For instance, maybe I start poking the bear that is that time you crashed my car. It would seem to indicate instigating an angry or defensive response as the goal, rather than attempting to "make you feel worse" about it - even though you may feel worse as a side-affect. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 21:07
  • @DoubleDouble I lean towards your statement. The second part of my answer is merely remotely related to the intention of the OP. The first part is much more on-spot. Good remark. Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 21:12

Sadism : A sadist is someone who enjoys inflicting pain on others

Although sadism is more used for inflicting physical pain, there is nothing to stop it being used for inflicting mental pain, bringing up things that people are trying to forget with the full knowledge that is causing them suffering is sadistic. How ever if somebody is bringing it up to stop one from falling in the same error again is different, so if the intent of mockery is to inflict pain then sadism seems to fit the bill.

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