Is an insult or mocking nickname an ad hominem fallacy?

My wife and I are having an argument about whether it counts as an ad hominem fallacy if you simply insult somebody in the course of your argument.

The particular instance that got us discussing it was that, in the course of this column about how global warming is a hoax, Dmitri Vassilaros refers to Al Gore as “Ozone Al” twice.

I think this counts as an ad hominem fallacy because it is meant to be a belittling nickname (which doesn’t even make sense in this case since ozone and global warming are two separate, though often conflated, issues).

My wife thinks it doesn’t qualify because it isn’t being used as part of a reason you should dismiss Al Gore’s claims about global warming – i.e., he isn’t actually saying “Al Gore is Ozone Al, therefore you should not believe what he has to say about global warming.”

I think that the whole piece is an argument that you should dismiss what Al Gore has to say about global warming, and the derisive nickname therefore counts as an ad hominem fallacy.

Am I wrong? Since this is GQ, I hope we can just address whether or not insults or mocking nicknames are ad hominem fallacies, rather than addressing the substance of Mr. Vassilaros’s column.

It’s ad hominem because you’re suggesting what someone says should be dismissed because of something *else *they may have said. In other words, you’re not addressing the issue, you’re addressing the person raising it. That’s the definition of ad hominem: dismissing something, not based on its own merits, but because of who said it.

By a narrow definition of ad hominem, your wife is correct, IMHO.

But there is a variant of the ad hominem fallacy known as poisoning the well. It involves a gratuitous insult against one’s opponent to predispose the audience towards… committing an ad hominem fallacy.

Poisoning the well isn’t strictly ad hominem though, because it’s not really an argument.

So it’s basically what I thought, then – if it’s designed to distract from the point or undermine the person’s credibility by making the person sound foolish or evil or whatever (“Ozone Al” or “feminazi” or “fascist” or “Repugnican” or “Democrap” … etc.) then it’s an ad hominem, even if you aren’t using it as a premise designed to support some conclusion?

Checking around several online sources* has confirmed for me the following: It’s not an ad hom unless it consists in the introduction of a premise which asserts something about the person being argued against. So just saying “Ozone Al” while arguing about Al’s views is not itself an ad hom. Saying “Ozone Al can’t be trusted since he’s a leftie” would be an ad hom.


*I went through the list of sources at the bottom of the article on ad hom at wikipedia.

OK … so, even if the piece in its entirety is arguing something about that person, gratuitous insults and mocking nicknames are NOT ad hominems unless they are immediate premises of some conclusion?

That’s how it appears to me, except I wouldn’t have said “immediate premise.” It just needs to be a premise in the argument, whether “immediate” or no.

Also, if the entire piece was written explicilty in order to argue something about a person, then you don’t necessarily have an example of an ad hominem fallacy. The fallacy exists when the premises about the person are introduced in an argument against that person’s position on some issue.


That’s exactly how I think of it, as well. It’s not a fallacy because it’s not a false chain of logic. It’s just a dirty tactic.

But Frylock, all logical fallacies are presented with that sort of formal presentation.

I would say that this is a case of poisoning the well. Some say that well-poisoning isn’t technically a logical fallacy, because it’s not an argument – there’s no chain of logic. Others (, via Wikipedia) say that poisoning the well is a subcategory of ad hominem argument.

In the end this is a matter of definition. It’s pretty clear what Vassilaros was up to though: he was engaging in name-calling in order to reduce Gore’s credibility. Careful, critical readers might think that this reflects poorly on Vassilaros. Savvy ones will recognize the column for what it is – entertainment.

I’m not sure what your point is, but in any case, I wasn’t basing what I said on the formal presentation of examples of the fallacy, but rather on what was explicitly stated as the definition of the fallacy.

“Ozone Al says the Earth is warming up” does not introduce a premise “Al is untrustworthy about environmental issues.” If the utterance of the sentence tends to imply such a thing in conversational pragmatic terms, that’s one thing, but the sentence doesn’t say anything about Al’s reliability. If I say to whoever said it “But I think Al is trustworthy on this,” he can reply, “I didn’t say he wasn’t.” He’s being facetious, and I know it, and he knows it, but he’s nevertheless correct–he didn’t say Al is untrustworthy, and such a notion was not part of his argument. It was not a notion that he intended his audience to accept as a premise in an attempt at a demonstration that (say) there is no reason to believein global warming.

I’d say this sounds right, and I’m now a little puzzled because you’re presuming here something you did not allow me above–that there is a significant distinction to b made between formally introducing a premise (which admits the possibility of logical fallacy) and on the other hand coloring one’s speech with connotative words (which is a rhetorical technique which does not incur the possibility of logical fallacy in and of itself).

The abovequoted paragraph is, IMO, exactly what one should say about the issue. We can leave out talk of fallacies altogether and just describe what Vassilaros did wrong. Getting ourselves clear about fallacies is a useful pedagogical exercise, but the goal is to be able to explain what’s wrong with a person’s argument.


Thanks folks; I was out of town for a few days and just now saw the additional responses to my question. So it seems that the consensus is that it’s not an ad hominem fallacy, and not even a fallacy per se, but more of a rhetorical tactic that could be described as “poisoning the well.” Right?