Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Man holding swear word sign over his mouth
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A verbal slanging match: a ritualized form of invective in which insults are exchanged.

"It's as if a verbal space has been cordoned off," says Ruth Wajnryb. Inside this space "a sanctioned kind of swearing can take place . . . where taboos are knowingly and legitimately flouted, providing a linguistic and psychological safety valve for a public letting off of steam" (Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language, 2005).

Etymology: from the Old English, "argue."

Examples and Observations:

  • "Although the language is often gross, even grotesque and astonishingly scatological, there is also a certain element of play. . . . [Flyting] is the verbal equivalent of virtuoso sword-play. . . ."
    "[In the farce] Gammer Gurton's Needle (acted 1566) . . . we find the new idioms of what the devil, how a murrain [plague], go to, Fie shitten knave and out upon thee, the pox, bawdy bitch, that dirty bastard, the whoreson dolt, for God's sake, thou shitten knave and that dirty shitten lout. The violent altercations between Grandma Gurton and Dame Chat show the closest affiliations to flyting:
    Thou wert as good as kiss my tail,
    Thou slut, thou cut, thou rakes, thou jakes,
    [You whore, you jade, you bawd, you shit-house]
    will not shame make thee hide thee?
    Thou skald, thou bald, thou rotten, thou glutton,
    [You scold, you hairless thing, you rubbish, you pig]

    I will no longer chide thee
    But I will teach thee to keep home."
    ​(G. Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Blackwell, 1991)

The Slanging Match in Henry the Fourth Part One

  • "Seventeenth-century playwrights regularly provided their audiences with such contests, knowing that they would be well received. There is the well-known exchange in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth Part One (2:iv) between prince Hal and Falstaff. Hal comments on Falstaff's size and weight, calling him: clay brain'd guts, though knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow catch. He also points out that Falstaff is: a bed-presser, a horse-back-breaker, a huge hill of flesh. Falstaff retaliates by remarking on Hal's thinness: you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish, you tailor's yard, you sheath, you bow case, you bile standing tuck."
    ​(Leslie Dunkling, Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address. Routledge, 1990)

Playing the Dozens

  • "The tradition of ritualized swearing, very much like flyting, continues in a number of places in the modern world. It is perhaps most notable in black American communities, where it is called 'sounding' or 'signifying' or 'playing the dozens.' Variations of this kind of flyting provide social distinctions between in-group and out-group members. But they also act as lyrical cornerstones for much of the anthemic rap (particularly gangsta rap) that defines gang neighbourhoods, including communities of young people from other ethnic backgrounds who admire gang values. . .
    "This style is also called 'capping' and 'cracking on' and is found as well in urban Aboriginal English in Australia."
    (Ruth Wajnryb, Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. Free Press, 2005)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Flyting." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Flyting. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Flyting." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).