Saturday, October 9, 2010


Language grows. New expressions and idioms continually emerge from people’s imaginations and morph as they circulate through many brains— transmogrifying memes.

When first you hear or read a new mimetic construct, a fresh idiom, it’s likely to be puzzling, and there’s no published dictionary to help (although Uncle Google probably can). So what you likely do is try to infer a meaning from the context—from the sentence in which it occurs and from the tone of voice or facial expression or gestures that, when it’s spoken, accompany and illustrate it.

So it was recently when I noticed students of mine using the idiom “called out.” In fact I must have provoked the usage myself since apparently I had “called” one of them “out” on some remark or behavior she had expressed, that fact was publicly proclaimed, and chagrin on the part of the student seemed to be the result.

From that I inferred that “calling out” means having the finger of accusation or blame or rebuke pointed at you in a public situation, a kind of discovery or outing with intent, perhaps, to shame.

But now I wonder if there’s a more picturesque etymology to the phrase. Is there a specific circumstance when a person is literally “called out,” as in a game of hide-and-seek: “I see you!”—and then you run for the tree called “Home.” Or might the picture be a squad of army recruits standing stiffly at attention before a sharp-eyed sergeant looking to “call out” a rookie soldier to step forward from the line-up and be “dressed down” for an unpolished belt buckle or a rumpled bunk bed?

I also wonder whether “calling out” and “ratting out” are related expressions. Literally, “ratting out” seems to depict (like “ferreting out”) a process of discovering a varmint in your house or barn and ousting it—except that this “rat” is figurative and in fact a nasty person rightly reported to the cops.

All right, having exhausted my recollection and imagination, I’ll now turn to Uncle Google to see what the collective consciousness of the World Wide Web can reveal.

At the top of the ever-interesting Urban Dictionary’s citations (hence, the most popular entry) is this:

“To challenge someone in some way. Or to put someone on blast.” Then this example: I don’t think you’ve really lost 300 pounds—you just say you have. Produce some Before & After photos. I’m calling you out.

That last remark reminds me that you “call” your opponent in poker to have him show his hand to prove he’s not bluffing: “Put up or shut up,” which confirms the idea that to call out is to challenge.

OK, I think I’ve got that idiom nailed. Next job: track down “to put someone on blast.”