What are the most disparaging words you could use to describe someone you dislike or don’t admire?

What is the most offensive label someone could attach to you?

When I was a child, my peers and I could count on a punishment if caught calling any person a “bad” word or “ugly” name. Upon confiding in me what she thought was the worst thing to call a person, one of my little friends felt she had to whisper it. I didn’t say so then, but I was surprised over what she believed was such awful language.

Still, she taught me a valuable lesson. Currently, with so much public name-calling underway, the timing seems right to share her message. According to my sweet, innocent friend, the worst name for anyone was …

a rotten tomato!

This happened decades before the debut of Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates film and TV ratings for public scrutiny. Nevertheless, the practice of throwing something rotten—vegetables, eggs, etc.—at public speakers and performers dates back centuries. Apparently, if they didn’t like the day’s play, Shakespeare’s audiences at the Globe Theatre threw food, but not tomatoes, which weren’t available. That raises the question of why rotten tomatoes became the symbol for things to sling.

Why not raw eggs or sour grapes?

I can’t answer on behalf of the show biz industry, but I can confirm that my friend intensely disliked tomatoes. From her perspective, a rotten tomato topped the list of repugnant stuff. Not much worse existed in her innocent imagination.

The lesson?

People use all kinds of language to be mean.

The intention to denigrate an individual or otherwise inflict harm by name-calling or labeling—no matter the metaphor, specific nouns or adjectives, so-called joke, or innuendo—is bad-mannered behavior that makes the instigator seem childish and incapable of engaging in a thoughtful, respectful debate. Perhaps we should keep that in mind the next time we find ourselves applauding one tweet and booing the other because we have our opinions and take sides.

Also, I don’t know about your parents, but I grew up hearing mine say, “It doesn’t matter who started it.” Whether initiating, joining in, or retaliating, those who sling rotten tomatoes (here, a metaphor for all unkind characterizations) inevitably land in sticky messes.

Let’s stop the badmouthing. Please join me in counting to three—three hundred, if necessary—before speaking or writing something that we already know (and should have known since the age of five) is inappropriate.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.