• A forceful written or spoken argument against something, especially an opinion or belief

  • [usually polemics] The act of participating in contentious debates or arguing about controversial topics

  • Someone who frequently argues against or strongly refutes others' views


  • Relating to or consisting of fiercely critical argument or opposition


Editorials come in all shapes and flavors, but the ones launching fiery, hostile attacks grab the most attention. Fair, sober commentaries may be the most insightful, but they're not always very exciting, and we often only care about complimentary pieces if they support what we're already thinking. An angry, righteous polemic, on the other hand, incites readers or listeners on both sides of the issue. People who make polemics may gain as many enemies as friends, but they certainly attract an audience!

A polemic is an aggressive, uncompromisingly critical verbal assault. Polemics can be written or spoken, and anyone who issues one isn't joking around. You can think of a polemic as an argument against something, but it's also a little more intense than that. The word refers to detailed rebuttals or disputations where the author's or speaker's goal is to take a decisive stance by thoroughly dismantling the thing being attacked. In theory, a polemic can focus on anything the issuer hates or disagrees with, but other people's political opinions or religious beliefs are the most common targets. A famous example of this kind of rhetorical condemnation is George Orwell's Animal Farm, which is a particularly imaginative and articulate allegorical polemic against Stalinist totalitarianism. Ideally, a polemic is well-thought-out and rational despite its aggressiveness, but that isn't necessarily the case. It's up to readers and listeners to decide if such an attack is actually logical and worth listening to.

You can find polemics wherever there are people with strong opinions, from social media to talk shows to school newspapers. They are especially useful, though, when used as tactics in formal debates. It might seem strange that hateful rhetoric is given a place in organized discussions, but a polemic isn't necessarily designed to attack others personally. There's a fine but definite line between attacking someone's views and attacking their character; a polemic can do either or both, but one that's used in a debate hopefully sticks to the former. In this case, a polemic can be an effective tool for making a powerful argument and challenging an opponent to defend his or her principles.

The plural version of the word, polemics, is often used to refer to the practice of delivering strongly negative rhetorical arguments. If two news columnists are battling with fiercely critical editorials every week, you could say they're resorting to or engaging in polemics. Occasionally, an author or speaker who frequently issues this type of invective may be referred to as a polemic, although the derivative word polemicist is more commonly used for this purpose.

Polemic is sometimes used as an adjective to characterize something as related to or involving highly contentious or negative rhetoric. For instance, a polemic Facebook post would involve a (probably somewhat lengthy) rant about something the poster finds extremely offensive. This adjective sense of polemic is synonymous with the derivative word polemical, which is more common.

Example: Written in 1517, Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses was a polemic that disputed several practices of the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Example: Standing on the steps of City Hall, the activist delivered a fiery polemic against the mayor's new policy.

Example: She knew the polemic she had published on her blog was harsh, but she hoped her readers would find it insightful and convincing.

Example: Tensions between members turned the PTA meeting into a session of polemics.

Example: The polemic op-ed about religious liberty drew a lot of attention.

Example: That columnist is a polemic who frequently stirs up controversy.


Since a polemic is an extremely antagonistic argument, it might not come as a surprise that the term has its origins in polemos, the Greek word for "war." Polemos is the source of the Greek polemikos, an adjective that means "aggressive," "warlike," or "ready for battle." These Greek terms gave rise to the French polémique, meaning "argumentative" or "starting controversy." Polémique is the closest relative of both the noun and adjective meanings of polemic, which both arose in English in the mid-1600s.

Derivative Words

Polemical: The adjective form of polemic characterizes something as related to or involving harsh criticism or strongly negative arguments.

Example: For some reason, our teacher didn't like my polemical essay about the evils of homework.

Example: Constant arguing and fierce rebuttals gave the debate a polemical tone.

Polemicist: (noun) A polemicist is a person known for delivering controversial or highly critical speech or writing.

Example: His contentious articles made him a well-known polemicist.

Polemicize: (verb) To polemicize is to make a forcefully hostile argument or participate in contentious debate. Polemicize is often used with the word against. It is conjugated as polemicized, polemicizes, and polemicizing.

Example: The newspaper's editor-in-chief used her position to polemicize against political movements she disagreed with.

Example: It was soon clear that the religious extremist didn't really understand the ideas he was polemicizing against.

Example: In our last debate, I ferociously polemicized about my opponent's views on prescriptive lexicography.

Example: She polemicizes against fashion faux-pas on her surprisingly aggressive style blog.

In Literature

From Albert Camus's The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt:

The rebel defies more than he denies. Originally, at least, he does not suppress God; he merely talks to Him as an equal. But it is not a polite dialogue. It is a polemic animated by the desire to conquer. The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.

In this passage, Camus uses polemic to describe the way that potential rebels speak to God. According to Camus, these individuals wouldn't speak humbly or respectfully. Instead, resentment of their low statuses and the desire to achieve power would drive them to make angry, righteous attacks, or polemics, against the sources of their oppression.


  • POLEMICS: POwerful, Livid Editorials Make Intensely Controversial Statements

  • Polemic: Think about someone throwing a mic as a pole (javelin) onto someone’s belief.


Rhetoric, Debate, Argument, Dialogue, Editorial

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