persiflage (small talk)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

persiflage -Hawkeye
In the long-running TV series M*A*S*H, Captain Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda) was a master purveyor of persiflage. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)


Persiflage is a light, flippant, and/or mocking manner of speech or writing. Also called banter, idle chatter, or small talk.

Philip Gooden describes persiflage as "a variant on banter. It doesn't add much to that word or other English equivalents and has a slightly twee or over-literary quality" (Faux Pas: A No-nonsense Guide to Words and Phrases, 2006)

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "whistle talk"

Examples and Observations

  • "Persiflage is speech or writing with tongue in cheek. It combines irony, levity, and paradox, treating trifles as serious matters and serious matters as trifles."
    (Willard R. Espy, The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary. Harper & Row, 1983)
  • Lord Chesterfield on Persiflage
    - "There is a certain jargon, which, in French, I should call un Persiflage d'Affaires, that a foreign Minister ought to be perfectly master of, and may be used very advantageously at great entertainments, in mixed companies, and in all occasions where he must speak, and should say nothing. Well turned and well spoken, it seems to mean something, though in truth it means nothing. It is a kind of political badinage, which prevents or removes a thousand difficulties, to which a foreign Minister is exposed in mixed conversations."
    (Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, letter to his son, January 15, 1753)
    - "Persiflage. Lord Chesterfield, in a letter of 1757, was the first to use this word in English. 'Upon these delicate occasions you must practice the ministerial shrugs and persiflage.' Hannah More in 1779 presented the feminine attitude toward 'the cold compound of irony, irreligion, selfishness, and sneer, which make up what the French . . . so well express by the word persiflage.' Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840), said of Voltaire: 'They felt that, if persiflage be the great thing, there never was such a persifleur.'"
    (Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. John Hopkins University Press, 1984)
  • Persiflage in Women in Love
    "'I think you are very silly. I think you want to tell me you love me, and you go all this way round to do it.'
    "'All right,' he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. 'Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don't want any more of your meretricious persiflage.'
    "'Is it really persiflage?' she mocked, her face really relaxing into laughter. She interpreted it, that he had made a deep confession of love to her. But he was so absurd in his words, also."
    (D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love, 1920)
  • The Persiflage of Bruce Willis
    "I remember when they told Sylvia Plath, 'Hey, Syl, cheer up!' I remember when they told e. e. cummings, 'e, baby; use caps!' But did ol' e listen? No. Little n. Little o."
    (Bruce Willis as David Addison in Moonlighting, 1985)
    Hans Gruber: I thought I told all of you, I want radio silence until further . . .
    John McClane: Ooooh, I'm very sorry, Hans. I didn't get that message. Maybe you should've put it on the bulletin board. Since I've waxed Tony and Marco and his friend here, I figured you and Karl and Franco might be a little lonely, so I wanted to give you a call.
    Karl: How does he know so much about . . .
    Hans Gruber: That's very kind of you. I assume you are our mysterious party crasher. You are most troublesome, for a security guard.
    John McClane: Eeeh! Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?
    Hans Gruber: Who are you then?
    John McClane: Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.
    (Alan Rickman, Bruce Willis, and Alexander Godunov in Die Hard, 1988)
  • Barbershop Persiflage
    "Buddy Lite--the barbershop barfly who’s still lounging in his porkpie hat and violating the rule posted on a sign stating 'No jibber jabber'--pauses the persiflage to become sentimental.
    "'You see, what John doesn’t tell you is that all this is the sideshow,' he says. 'The real museum here is the people.'"
    (Luke Jerod Kummer, "In Pennsylvania, a Haircut to Remember." The Washington Post, February 25, 2011)
  • Persiflage in Film
    "Excessive stylistic devices offer possibilities for shifting the status of the film narrative when the plot becomes secondary to persiflage, parody, and/or self-reflexive commentary. Only by recognizing the possibility of such a shift can stylistic devices such as excessive use of voice-over or pompous referencing--which seem annoying because they hamper the progress of the story--be properly evaluated."
    (Peter Verstraten, Film Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. by Stefan Van Der Lecq. University of Toronto Press, 2009)

Pronunciation: PUR-si-flahz

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "persiflage (small talk)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). persiflage (small talk). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "persiflage (small talk)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).