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ad hom·i·nem (hŏmə-nĕm, -nəm)
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adj.
1. Attacking a person's character or motivations rather than a position or argument: The candidates agreed to focus on the issues rather than making ad hominem attacks against each other.
2. Appealing to the emotions rather than to logic or reason.

[Latin : ad, to + hominem, accusative of homō, person.]

ad homi·nem adv.

Usage Note: Those readers who have studied Latin will know that the preposition ad means "to" or "toward" and that the hominem of ad hominem is an inflected form of the noun homo ("person"), making the literal meaning of the phrase "toward the person." But toward which person? Though ad hominem is usually used nowadays to describe a personal attack, the homo of ad hominem was originally the audience to whom an argument was addressed, not the opponent at whom a personal attack is directed. The phrase denoted an argument designed to appeal to the listener's emotions rather than to reason, as in the sentence That candidate's evocation of pity for the small farmer struggling to maintain his property is a purely ad hominem argument for reducing inheritance taxes. This usage had already begun to wane by the 1990s: in our 1997 survey, only 37 percent of the Usage Panel found this sentence acceptable, and in our 2013 survey, only 34 percent did. The phrase is now chiefly used to describe an argument based on the personal traits of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case: Ad hominem attacks on one's opponent are a tried-and-true strategy for people who have a case that is weak. This sentence was acceptable to 90 percent of the Panel in 1997 and 98 percent in 2013. The expression also has a looser use in referring to any personal attack, whether or not it is part of an argument, as in It isn't in the best interests of the nation for the press to attack him in this personal, ad hominem way. This use was acceptable to 65 percent of the Panel in 1997 and to 72 percent in 2013.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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