• To mercilessly criticize; to speak negatively or abusively about someone or something

  • To purposefully damage someone’s reputation


None of us are perfect, and when we stray from our ideals, someone may critique us so we can correct our mistakes. However, the only way such reminders propel us to grow is when they are offered to constructively criticize rather than to vilify and condemn.

To vilify is to talk about or admonish someone in a way that’s ruthlessly caustic and often slanderous or exaggerated. While it is possible to fairly criticize people while remaining positive overall, to vilify is to be uncompromisingly negative, and maybe even abusive or hateful. The word implies going beyond criticizing to fix a problem; instead, it involves calling the subject’s character or abilities into question through harsh and potentially inaccurate language. Vilification frequently takes the form of public criticism; for instance, a frustrated boss might vilify an employee over mistakes in front of their coworkers out of anger or to make the employee seem weak. Disparagers can also vilify their targets through tactics like spreading disparaging rumors or publishing extremely reproachful editorials.

To vilify can also mean to willfully undermine or diminish the worth or esteem of something or someone. In these cases, the harsh criticism or misleading slander is calculated and premeditated, and it’s issued to intentionally, and maybe even maliciously, reduce the status of a person or a thing. Those who vilify others like this may be trying to make themselves or their ideas seem more attractive in comparison. While many such debasers (i.e. vilifiers) use loud, brazen arguments, others may choose to vilify more subtly, in ways that can’t be easily traced. For instance, someone may choose to surreptitiously settle a grudge by starting a whisper campaign on social media that involves spreading nasty, probably exaggerated claims about the target without his or her knowledge. Vilification is successful if it gets others to seriously question the target’s character or value.

Example: Without a substantive rebuttal to his debate opponent’s argument, he proceeded to vilify her for her other policies instead.

Example: Frustrated by the defective toaster she bought, she took to the review websites to vilify it.

Example: The candidate resorted to demagogy to vilify his opponent.


Originally, vilify comes from the Late Latin verb vilificare, meaning “to reduce in value” or “to make lowly.” Vilificare is made up of the roots vilis, for “cheap” or “low,” and facere, meaning “to make” or "to do." Fittingly, vilis is also an ancestor of the modern English word vile. Vilify first entered English to mean “to decrease the worth of” in the mid-15th century, acquiring the now dominant sense of “to speak ill of” or “to defame” by the end of the following century.

Derivative Words

Vilifies: The present tense conjugation of vilify notes when a singular third-person subject is severely critiquing or belittling someone or something.

Example: Resistant to compromise or teamwork, she vilifies any proposals that differ from her own.

Example: He hates Star Wars so much that he vilifies it as a bad series every time it comes up in conversation.

Vilified: The preterit of vilify indicates when someone has ruthlessly condemned or defamed in the past.

Example: He initially vilified the draft legislation, but a more careful read prompted him to change his mind and voice his support.

Example: Still holding onto an old grudge, she vilified her former best friend at every turn.

Example: The owner felt that his restaurant was unfairly vilified on Yelp.

Vilifying: The present progressive of vilify is used when someone is currently rebutting or slandering a person or thing.

Example: He continued vilifying his sister’s position even after she pointed out that the facts didn’t support his argument.

Example: She finally stopped vilifying her friend after the latter apologized.

Vilification: This noun form of vilify means repudiation or defamation.

Example: Though he suggested an earnest reform proposal, it suffered nothing but vilification in the media, derided as ineffectual.

Example: The vilification of refugees has severely hindered efforts to address the serious humanitarian crisis.

Vilifier: This additional noun form refers to a person who makes harsh criticisms or libelous remarks.

Example: He usually kept quiet, but his boss’s policy was so disastrous that it turned him into a staunch vilifier of the plan.

Example: As a sign of good faith in response to her friend’s act of contrition, she apologized for being such an ardent vilifier for all those years.

Example: The candidate’s reputation dipped because of several anonymous vilifiers on social media.

In Literature

From Samuel Johnson's The Rambler, Vol. 4:

Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend.

Johnson remarks that the greatest impediment to furthering human knowledge is the readiness with which small-minded naysayers bitterly condemn, or vilify, concepts that are beyond their understanding.


Note that Vilify has one “L”. Don’t get thrown-off because of “LL” in “Villain” – which has a completely different root.


  • To vilify is to speak ill of someone

  • When you vilify someone, you paint them as a villain

  • Vilify: Make someone seem vile

  • Vilify: “Vile-ify”


Defamation, Language, Character, Politics

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of vilify. Did you use vilify in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.