Them's Fightin' Words

Put up your dukes
fighting words

"You know they's lots o' words that's called fightin' words. Some o' them starts a brawl, no matter who they're spoken to."

So says Ring Lardner in his 1917 Gullible's Travels.

The words that follow may not start brawls, but they can help you talk about them.


noun : a noisy disturbance or quarrel

Row, more popular in British English than in American English, has been in use since at least the mid-18th century.

In addition to the common meaning of "a noisy disturbance or quarrel," it can also refer to any heated argument. In British English it is also a slang word used to mean "noise" or "racket," and as a synonym of "mouth," along the lines of "trap" in "shut your trap."

The word's origin is unknown.


verb : to quarrel noisily and usually over petty matters

As with its synonym squabble, if you're brabbling you're making noise arguing with someone usually about something that isn't very important. The word is thought to be from the Middle Dutch word brabbelen, itself of "imitative origin"—which is a nice way of saying that when Middle Dutch speakers argued they sounded a little like the 1980s Hamburglar.

Brabble the verb is at least four and a half centuries old, and it has a noun analogue that appears to be only a few years newer. Shakespeare preferred the noun: "Away, I say! / Now, by the gods that warlike Goths adore, / This pretty brabble will undo us all." (Titus Andronicus)


noun : a noisy quarrel : brawl

Its etymology carries a vivid image: fracas comes ultimately from the Italian word fracassare, meaning "to shatter." Fracas came to English by way of French, in which language the word means "din" or "a noisy disturbance or quarrel." Joseph Conrad's Mr. Schomberg finds the word apt in Conrad's 1915 novel Victory: "He shrank from action. He dreaded any kind of disturbance—'fracas' he called it—in his hotel. Such things were not good for business."


noun : dispute, argument

Though a contretemps (pronounced like this) in current use is an argument, the word has an older meaning referring to an inopportune or embarrassing occurrence or situation. That meaning comes directly from fencing, in which a contretemps was at one time a thrust or lunge made at just the wrong moment.

The word is originally French, from contre-, meaning "counter," and temps, meaning "time."


noun : a usually brief and disorderly struggle or fight : scrape, scuffle

This word has its origin in rugby: scrum in its earliest use refers to the process in rugby by which the ball is put into play, with forwards from each side coming together in a tight formation and struggling to gain possession of the ball (using their feet) after it's been tossed in among them. Scrum is short for scrummage, which is synonymous with the rugby scrum and is also a verb: in a scrum, or scrummage, the players scrummage.

Scrummage itself is an alteration of scrimmage, which is used with both rugby and American football meanings. Neither game is for the faint of heart; that a word related to both could give us a term like scrum is no surprise. Scrimmage, though, didn't start with sport. Its earliest meanings are "a minor battle" and "a confused fight." It comes from the same source as the word skirmish.


verb : dispute, debate; : to dispute angrily or peevishly : bicker, wrangle

"I want none of your argufying," says a sergeant to Judith in George Bernard Shaw's 1897 play The Devil's Disciple. And Lord Byron wrote in an 1810 letter to his friend that a particular woman "evinced a similar disposition to argufy with me, which I avoided by either laughing, or yielding." If you haven't seen the play or read the letter, you may not have encountered argufy. It's a perfectly good word, though, and we'll argufy with anyone who says otherwise.

battle royal

noun : a heated dispute

The term battle royal (also styled as battle royale) has a 17th century meaning that is still seen in the modern wrestling ring: it's a fight participated in by more than two combatants—especially one in which the last fighter in the ring, or the last fighter standing, is declared the winner.

Battle royal also refers more generally to a violent struggle.

By the way, we won't engage in a battle royal over the plural form of this term. You've got four options and we're happy to let you pick whichever you prefer: battles royal, battle royals, battles royale, or battle royales.


noun : a heated dispute or controversy

While most of us likely think of pie and other sweet and tangy edibles when we hear the word rhubarb, the word has since at least the 1940s also referred to what happens sometimes when passionate people disagree. It's especially applied on the baseball field, as in this example from the March 15, 1947 New York Times article: "There was a real mid-season 'rhubarb' in the sixth inning when Ed Heusser picked a runner off second. The umpire called him safe and Manager Durocher rushed out in his best Ebbets Field style to protest. Bobby Bragan threw his mask thirty feet into the air, but nobody was banished."