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I am having a really hard time seeing the nuanced differences between these three synonyms, especially vituperation and vitriol. I saw from my research that invective is used in more formal context with use of refined language (if somebody can add more to this word, I would be appreciate it). But I have trouble seeing the subtle difference between vitriol and vituperation since both suggest bitter, cruel, harsh abusive language.

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  • Vitriol is a noun and should be used as a noun. Vituperative is an adjective and should be used as an adjective. Invection is a noun, and, again, should be used as a noun. Unlike vitriol it is abusive, and not only harsh or mean. Jun 9, 2020 at 3:16
  • @ambitious_ph1lologist Vituperation is a noun -- also invective is the noun you're looking for.
    – Kman3
    Jun 9, 2020 at 3:23
  • Then OP should probably edit the question, because it is confusing: there's vituperative in the title and vituperation in the body. EDIT: my first comment has a typo: I meant invective Jun 9, 2020 at 3:34
  • Vitriol is actually an old word for sulphuric acid, used in the metaphorical sense to mean very bitter invective. Jun 9, 2020 at 8:31

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Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1940) covers two of the three words of interest to the question poster—vituperation and invective—under the general heading of abuse; it doesn't discuss vitriol at all. Here are the relevant parts of the entry for abuse:

Abuse, vituperation, invective, obloquy, scurrility, billingsgate agree in denoting vehemently expressed condemnation or disapproval. ... Vituperation suggests the overwhelming of someone or something with a torrent of abuse. "The daily vollies of that that great French master of vituperation, Leon Daudet) (T. S. Eliot). Invective implies vehemence and bitterness in attack or denunciation, and (often in distinction from abuse) connotes a command of language and skill in making one's points. It is the precise term when the attack is public and made in a good cause. "John Bull stopped at nothing in the way of insult; but its blazing audacity of invective never degenerated into dull abuse." (A. Repplier).

The contemporaneous edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary—the fifth edition (1936)—has this entry for vitriol:

vitriol n. 1. Chem[istry] a A sulphateof any of various metals, as copper (blue vitriol) iron (green vitriol), zinc (white vitriol), etc.;—from the glassy appearance of many of these salts. b Oil of vitriol. See SULPHURIC ACID ["A heavy corrosive, oily liquid, H2SO4, colorless when pure, early made by distilling green vitriol, whence the name oil of vitriol"]. 2. Hence, anything likened to vitriol as being caustic.

So in the 1940s, Merriam-Webster seems to have taken the view that vituperation is a kind of tsunami of insult and abuse, while invective is a no less bitter but far more considered and selective expression of abuse, as from a notably cultured, cultivated, and articulate enemy. Vitriol, meanwhile, in its figurative sense seems not to have advanced very far from its literal origin (in oil of vitriol) as a chemical term for sulfuric acid, so its meaning was not broadly "abuse" but something highly corrosive, biting, or acidic.

The synonym notes under abuse in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) show that MW's view of the difference between vituperation and invective has changed very little in the six decades since Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms appeared:

VITUPERATION implies fluent and sustained abuse {a torrent of vituperation}. INVECTIVE implies a comparable vehemence but suggests greater verbal and rhetorical skill and may apply to a public denunciation {blistering political invective}.

The torrent of abuse that MW associated with vituperation is still there in the example use of the word, but the flood is now characterized as "fluent and sustained" instead of simply "overwhelming." Meanwhile, invective retains the stamp of rhetorical skill and (often) a political cast—although I have trouble making sense of the Eleventh Collegiate's insistence that invective "suggests greater verbal and rhetorical skill" than vituperation, given that vituperation implies "fluent and sustained abuse."

Meanwhile, the Eleventh Collegiate has this definition of the figurative sense of vitriol:

vitriol ... 2 : something felt to resemble [chemical] vitriol esp. in caustic quality; esp : virulence of feeling or of speech

Neither vituperation nor invective has the chemical underpinning that vitriol does, and neither so clearly frames the character of the abuse or criticism being expressed as caustic or corrosive.

My own sense of vituperation and invective is that the former suggests true personal bitterness or malignity, while the latter has more of a political cast and thus applies more often in the context of performative outrage—as on the political stage or in the courtroom—than in instances of sincere personal animosity.

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After consulting a couple of online resources such as the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries, it seems to me that at least a number of partial answers is available in popular language reference works.

Here[1]'s the Merriam-Webster's (MW) take on the small distinctions between vituperation and some of its synonyms and words that come close to it in meaning and usage.

As for vitriol (which happens to be covered as the last item in the synonym list there) vs. vituperation, it seems to me that it may be not so much a matter of precise meaning or expression on a factual level as of register or approximative position on a formality scale.

Compare, for a similar case illustrating register, the example of some dated subway sign saying

Expectoration is forbidden

to express what could be more plainly put as

Please do not spit

(Note: Source has eluded me but could be retrievable if needed.)

For an attempt at a partial seat-of-the-pants answer (another user may be able to give more insight as to this), vitriol seems to be rather towards the everyday/colloquial where the more formal and neutral term seems to be abuse while vituperation seems to me to have a bit of a formal touch for whatever intent or purpose. (Such as the speaker distinctly wishing to sound distinguished and somewhat above any person whose demeanor they may describe as shedding vitriol.)

Here[2]'s an example of the use of vitriol from somewhere in literature (last example on the page):

Two men positioned themselves directly behind me and from them came a constant stream of vitriol.

On a personal note, that lets me think of a street scene of a certainly not elevated tier of society, at least for the two men mentioned. As a matter of taste (YMMV), it seems that here it would be breaking register (in the language of the narration that might credibly be kept in accordance with the content and inner setting of the narration) to use vituperation.

So at least part of the matter does boil down to the subtleties of using words of potentially the exact same meaning (depending on context as there are rarely two words of overall exactly mutually overlapping content) to express things in one's speech other than just the plain factual meaning, such as mood and register.

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