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Slanging match

Q From Evan Parry, New Zealand: How did the expression slanging match develop? Its meaning is well-known, but how did slang, meaning informal language, make its way into this compound noun?

A Its meaning is well-known in British and Commonwealth circles, but puzzled comments when I used it a couple of years ago suggest that Americans are less familiar with it. A slanging match is a vituperative argument or an exchange of abuse.

The experts are sure the origin is indeed the noun slang, which dictionaries note is itself slang in origin, though nobody has the slightest idea where it’s from. It dates from the middle of the eighteenth century. Before then the usual word was cant, for the secret language of thieves and beggars. This is from Latin cantare, to sing, via a disparaging reference to medieval church services and the whining speech of some beggars.

The link with slanging match comes about through slang becoming a verb meaning to abuse or insult people, which is known from the early decades of the nineteenth century. Since much slang is itself disparaging or insulting, it’s not hard to see how this developed. In 1864 Charlotte M Yong wrote in her novel Trial, “I never had such a slanging in my life!”

Slanging match appears at the end of the century to mean a bout of verbal fisticuffs. An early example is in a book by Thomas E Taylor entitled Running the Blockade: A Personal narrative of Adventures, Risks, and Escapes during the American Civil War: “A slanging match went on between us, like that sometimes to be heard between two penny steamboat captains on the Thames.”

Intriguingly, in view of its current distribution, early examples were as common in the US as they were in Britain. It would seem that Americans fell out of love with it but we Brits didn’t.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Jul. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 July 2008.