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I came across the phrase ‘Them’s fighting words,’ in the beginning part of a Time magazine (July 12) article in its Swampland section under the title “Don’t mess with the stimulus! It had all your creamed spinach and more.” The author, Michael Grunwald, seems to be defending Obama’s stimulus plan of infrastructure. The sentence in question reads as follows:

You know, the poor thing has no one to defend it but me. And me again. And yet again. So, its infrastructure spending was too “rushed,” and sent cash to the "least difficult and imaginative projects," huh? Them’s fighting words!

I interpret "Them's fighting words" to simply mean "They're fighting words." Can them be used as a subject being followed by the singular of "to be" and a transitive verb (fight) that takes the objective noun (words)? I’m puzzled if this is an established American usage of them or just a fashionable saying.

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To all viewwers of this question: I came to the second thought. The article could be adressed to a critic whose name is Joe Theme. Then, no wonder of saying 'Theme’s fighting words'! –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 12 '11 at 22:16
    
Is it "Theme's fighting words" or "Them's fighting words" as you reported in the title? –  kiamlaluno Jul 12 '11 at 22:22
    
@kiamlauluno. I misspelt, it's "Them's fighting words." How about my second thought - Joe Them is fighting words ? –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 12 '11 at 22:31
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The correct expression is "Them's fightin' words!" You must drop the g or it just sounds silly. –  Robusto Jul 13 '11 at 1:03
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I wouldn't translate Them's fighting words as They're fighting words. I'd go for Those are fighting words. The difference is subtle, but I'm pretty sure it is a real difference nonetheless. –  TRiG Aug 5 '11 at 22:40
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's not grammatically correct; it's a common joking play on bad grammar, particularly on Southern U.S. dialects. I don't know exactly when it was coined for popular usage, but the Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1930s through 1950s certainly made good use of it.

EDIT: here we go; from the American Heritage Dictionary for "fighting words":

The ungrammatical use of them's for "those are" emphasizes the folksy tone of this colloquialism, first recorded in Ring Lardner's Gullible's Travels(1917).

The term "fighting words" itself is a well-known and well-used term, even making it into U.S. Constitutional case law; "fighting words", as in words spoken or written for the sole purpose of inciting a person to fight, are not "protected speech" under the First Amendment.

Read more in fighting word.

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Interestingly, "them's fighting words" does not seem to appear in Gullible's Travels (this story is now in the public domain), but rather: "You know they's lots o' words that's called fightin' words." –  aedia λ Jul 12 '11 at 22:36
    
@Keiths. I can understand 'fight words' easily. No problem with it. My question is whether it is right to take them as a subject as in "Them's fighting' or Them is simply a person's name. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 12 '11 at 23:25
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I would go so far as to say that the writer missed the full idiom by spelling out "fighting": ordinarily you would say Them's fightin' words!

By which you would mean "By saying that, you are inciting me to argue with you (or, if I feel strongly enough, to start throwing punches at you)." Usually it is said largely in jest as an indication that someone has said something controversial, and rarely with any actual intent to start a physical altercation.

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No, Them's fightin' words is not correct English. This is a widely known American expression in the style of a slightly illiterate western American dialect of the past. A more correct (although less colorful) form would be Those are fighting words, meaning the words someone just said are ones naturally leading to a fight with the one spoken to.

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@mgkrebbs.Could you tell me why the intellectual author who writes for Time magazine dared to use ungrammatical expresssion 'in the style of slightly illiterate western American dialect' in writing? Did he aim at writing purple prose? –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 13 '11 at 8:30
    
@Yoichi Oishi: The phrase may be colorful, but I wouldn't call it purple prose. First, understand the phrase is a cliche, a well-known particular phrase. He would not have written anything else in same style and structure, e.g. not Them's wild opinions. Since it is well-known, it is not a daring usage. It does carrry a rather over-wrought flavor of pugnacious response to insult. It rather nicely balances the paragraph's opening, Oh, Joe, it is on! (It is on is another well-known phrase, meaning, more or less, "the fight has started".) –  mgkrebbs Jul 13 '11 at 20:54
    
@ mgcrebbs/@Mark Wallace.I found the following difinition of “Them's fighting words” in answers.com.: “A statement bound to start a quarrel or fight. - - The ungrammatical use of them's for "those are" emphasizes the folksy tone of this colloquialism, first recorded in Ring Lardner's Gullible's Travels (1917). What you just said will lead to a fight. e.g. I heard what you said about my brother, and them's fighting words. →Put up your dukes.” Your answers and supplement in answers.com clalified my question why it shouldn’t be ‘They are fighting words.” Thanks a lot for your detailed input. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 15 '11 at 0:07
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It's a quote from literature (Lardner: Gullible's Travels) (I didn't know I still had that bookmark!), so it doesn't have to be grammatical.

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