Learn English – What does Pope Francis “called out him (Pope Emeritus Benedict) on it” mean


There was the following sentence in the article titled “Pope Francis tells Pope Benedict to stop rolling his eyes in meetings” in May 2nd New Yorker magazine:

Pope Emeritus Benedict’s return to the Vatican began on a sour note
today as the current Pope, Francis, reprimanded him for rolling his
eyes sarcastically during meetings, observers said.

The trouble started when the former Pope showed up at a meeting that
“Benedict wasn’t even invited to,” a Vatican source said. After about
ten minutes of suffering through Benedict’s sighing and eye-rolling,
Francis “totally called him out on it,” the source said, adding, “What
Benedict was doing was totally disrespectful. Plus, he is supposed to
be retired, so he shouldn’t have been wearing his Pope costume.”

Though Oxford English Dictionary defines “call someone out” as

  1. summon someone to deal with an emergency or to do repairs

  2. order or advise workers to strike.

  3. (archaic) challenge someone to a duel,

none of the above definitions seems to fit to “Francis ‘totally called him out on it.’”
There is no entry of the idiom, “call someone out” in either Cambridge or Merriam Webster English Dictionary.

It looks like the phrase, “Pope Francis “totally called him out on it” to mean he was totally upset with Benedict’s presence accompanied with exaggerated gestures during the meeting, but I’m not sure. What does this sentence and idiom,'call sb out on stg' mean?

Best Answer

I would have never thought this expression had anything to do with duels, or guessed that dueling was the origin of this expression. After analyzing the phrase, though, I can see how that might be the case.

When I've heard this expression, it's been used to describe a situation where:

  • a group of people were gathered
  • one person said something that another person felt wasn't accurate
  • that other person publicly challenged the first person's claim

For example, I might recount the events of a meeting, and tell my coworkers:

In the meeting, Ralph said, "In the past two years, nobody has had more sales than I've had," but I called him out on it.

That would imply I publicly disagreed with Ralph in the meeting, putting pressure on him to either back up his claim with hard data, or else recant his statement altogether.

I doubt I'd actually use the phrase "call you out" in the meeting. In other words, I'd be unlikely to say to Ralph:

I'd like to call you out on that.

Instead, if I think Ralph's statement isn't entirely accurate, I might say something like:

Really? You think you're the top salesperson? By what standard? I'd like to see those numbers.

and then use the "called him out" expression later when describing what happened in the meeting.

I suppose that's a form of challenge, as Bill said, but I wouldn't consider that the same as inviting Ralph into the parking lot to settle matters. I'd say a roughly equivalent expression my be call to account, which one dictionary defines as:

call to account 1. To challenge or contest. 2. To hold answerable for.

Also, in the case where I think someone is deliberately lying, I might use the phrase call someone's bluff, which means:

call someone's bluff to challenge someone to give proof of his claims

I don't think I'd use the bluff expression in my example, though, unless I thought Ralph was simply lying outright. Deciding who has had the most sales can be a tricky business: are we measuring by the number of sales, the amount of revenue generated, or the amount of profit that's been earned? Ralph could indeed be at the top of one of those categories; in my hypothetical scenario, perhaps I don't think he's lying per se, but I think he might not be telling the whole story, either.

Getting back to the usage in the Times, the bluff idiom doesn't apply, because the former pope was being called out on his behavior, not some claim he was making.

If I was asked to reword the statement, I might suggest:

After about ten minutes of suffering through Benedict’s sighing and eye-rolling, Francis openly rebuked him for it.

which I think would convey roughly the same sentiment as the original.