This question discusses the use of "call out", meaning to publicly denounce or decry a person or a behaviour. One of the answers to that question gives an earliest known use of the expression from 1981.

I wonder how this expression arose? Is it an abbreviation or generalisation of an expression from a particular field of activity? For example, a teacher 'calling out' an unruly child from behind their desk, or whatever?


Thanks for the suggestions. Obviously, 'call' is a very basic/common verb, and there are loads of idioms involving it. There are various well-established uses of "call out" as well: one cowboy 'calling out' another for a duel; a tennis umpire calling "out"; "call out the guards" to quell a rebellion; and so on.

What I specifically want to know is which, if any, of the earlier senses of "call out" led to the modern usages - "call out [bad behaviour X]" and/or "call [person X] out on her [bad behaviour Y]". (I take it as read that the former usage is a contraction of the latter).

Example: "Always call out everyday sexism!"

Evidence that the usage arose 'spontaneously', without reference to any other sense of the phrase, would also be acceptable as an answer, of course.

  • 1
    I guess I've always associated it with old US "western" movies (and likely some swashbucklers as well). One person stands outside of a bar and calls out his nemesis, so they can have a showdown.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 21:45
  • 1
    It should be noted that what is likely a more recent meaning means calling out the the name of someone in a group for some special recognition. Not quite a "shout out", but close.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 21:48
  • Yes, the 'westerns' idea makes sense as an origin... although the current usage in the media makes me think more of fishwives than gunslingers. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 21:55
  • Also note that there are many other common collocations of "call out". The obvious one is "calling out" to another person at a distance. And there's "call out" the militia. The noun form of "call out" may be used for some sort of announcement. "Call out" is apparently used to mean some sort of "on call" part-time employment.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 22:27
  • Consider also to single out and perhaps even the probably more recent to (give) a shout out to Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 20:35

3 Answers 3


The OED includes the 1981 date as the earliest attestation of this specific sense of call out, but it also cross-references call on which was used earlier in a similar sense. The earliest attestation of this use is from 1944.

You could (and should) promptly ‘call’ him on it and ask him to prove it.

  • 1944 - Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Tribune 9 Nov. 3/2

This sense of "call on" is cross-referenced to another sense of call pertaining to gambling.

(c) trans. fig. and in figurative contexts. To accept (a person's) challenge or offer; to challenge (a person) to fulfil a declared intention. Also with the challenge or intention as object. Cf. to call one's (or the) bluff at bluff n.2 3a .

This series of cross-references suggests to me that there is likely a connection between the earlier gambling expression "call," meaning to match someone's bet in a game of cards, essentially "challenging" their hand, and the modern expression "call out" meaning to challenge someone publicly. The gambling connection doesn't completely explain the "out," which I would attribute to the tendency for this expression to mean that someone is being "exposed" or challenged publicly.


To call out seems to be a hybridization of two historically related idioms: To call to account and To call out.

According to English Idioms, by James Main Dixon, ca 1902, pp39-40 :

To call to account - to censure; to demand an explanation from

To call out - to challenge to fight a duel

There is (often enough) an aggressive quality to the habit of calling people out, making it fairly obvious how the two idioms may have naturally merged to become the one that was historically the most terrifying.


The only certain way to get a precise and certain answer to this question is probably doing a lot of textual studies using bots and older books, but my impression would be that there is little difference between previous uses of "call out" and the current-day use of "call out". It would not seem far fetched to see the evolution of "calling someone out" that is, calling attention to others about someone's behavior or calling attention to that person about his/her behavior.

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