A classic example:

In the opening scene of Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray seeks the adjudication of the king. They hurl accusations of treachery and cowardliness at each other. They engage in what we call in colloquial English 'trash-talk' without an actual fight of swords (they do later, but that is not the point). What formal/literary word can we use in describing that sort of 'trash-talk'?

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    It's not a single word, but I've heard such things called verbal jousting before. Though it has a slightly nicer connotation than trash talking, I believe. Mar 25, 2015 at 7:42
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    The words trash and garbage are seldom used in Britain either literally or metaphorically.
    – WS2
    Mar 25, 2015 at 8:12
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    Hi WS2. You raise an interesting issue. 100.0% of Britons would be aware that "trash-talk" is an Americanism meaning, the bad-mouthing that goes on between sportsmen - even though they, the Britons in question, don't use "trash". Just as 100% of Britons would know that "sidewalk" or "trunk" [do I have that right?] are "Americanisms we Brits do not use.". So the issue of whether "trash-talk" "is used" by Brits is tricky. For example, 100.0% of Brits know what "bonjour" means ("it's something they say across the channel") .. is it "a British word"? Is "trash-talk" in fact a "loan-word"?
    – Fattie
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:41
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    Hi PS ... I'm pretty old, I find that hard to believe. (Think how popular US movies and TV are. Just one example -- every Briton knows what are "Seinfeld" or "The Simpson" for better or worse; carriers of such language.) But --- fair enough, I'll consider wot you say
    – Fattie
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:59
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    For you lost Britons who have no idea what this "trash talking" is, it's not talking rubbish. It's basically sledging, though not limited to cricket. It is what the Wealdstone Raider became famous for, for example. Mar 26, 2015 at 2:58

7 Answers 7


If it's mild, but witty, it's simply word-play.

If it's humorously argumentative, it's repartee. or perhaps verbal tennis (I made that one up). They are trading ripostes.

if they try to outdo one another with their words, they are having a battle of wits or a battle of words.

if they insult one another, they are trading barbs or trading insults. They are sharp-tongued.

If they are quick to come up with a retort, they could be said to have a rapier wit.

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    These are all excellent associated phrases. Note too that you can and should definitely use 'trash talk'. If your teacher or someone feels that is not dignified: tell them they are silly: Old Willy is the preeminent example in English culture of scandalously embracing and generating new ("slang" if you will) contemporaneous language of the day.
    – Fattie
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:36
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    I think you mean riposte, with an "e"?
    – psmears
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:57
  • +1 and you might add playing the dozens if the play were set in a modern urban style, a la Baz Luhrmann.
    – bib
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:58
  • Related to the 'battle of wits' / 'trading insults': en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dozens , en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extempo , en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_rap
    – A E
    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:59
  • The OP noted the verbal sword play without swords, so I would tend towards those terms related to fencing, above: ripostes, with rapier wit.
    – rajah9
    Mar 25, 2015 at 13:31

How about flyting? It was a fairly commonly-practised activity in Shakespeare's time. Essentially it was the equivalent of a rap battle, in which it was not unusual for participants to insult the virility of their opponent, or suggest that their mothers were... promiscuous.

  • impressive! nice
    – Fattie
    Mar 25, 2015 at 15:48
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    The best answer, in my opinion! Never heard of it before, but clearly that's what the Shakespeare characters were doing. And complete with mythology and illustration. Nice. +1 Mar 26, 2015 at 5:39
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    Most accurate answer, but very obscure. Depends on who the intended audience is. Mar 27, 2015 at 9:12
  • I can't seem to find it on YouTube; despite being British, the TV series 'Time Team' is blocked in my country. They once did an episode that feature flyting, and it's worth a watch if you're able!
    – Herr Pink
    Mar 28, 2015 at 1:49

As a formal/literary alternative to trash-talk I suggest :


  • a heated or angry dispute; noisy argument or controversy.

or, with a stronger connotation, a confrontation:

  • a situation in which people, groups, etc., fight, oppose, or challenge each other in an angry way



The Clown in As You Like It (act 5, scene 6) identifies seven forms of Shakespearean trash talk, each tied to a level of escalation in a quarrel:

the Retort courteous,

the Quip modest,

the Reply churlish,

the Reproof valiant,

the Countercheck quarrelsome,

the Lye circumstantial,

and the Lye direct.

—all of which may be obviated by a well-timed if.

A footnote to the linked (1766) edition of As You Like It points out that Shakespeare took the Lye circumstantial (or conditional) and the Lye direct (or certain) directly from a book on disputation and dueling by Vincentio Saviello called Of Honour and Honourable Quarrels (1594)—"A discourse most necessary for all gentlemen that have in regard their honors, touching the giving and receiving the lye, whereupon the Duello and the Combat in divers forms doth ensue ; and many other inconveniences, for lack only of true knowledge of honor, and, the RIGHT UNDERSTANDING OF WORDS, which here is set down." Prescriptivism at its best!

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    Then perhaps I (an American) don't really understand what is meant by "trash-talk". I would not think it necessarily had anything to do with a quarrel, but was more the sort of speech one thinks of as stereotypical rap: full of 'hos' and 'bitches', and with a strong element of brag.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 26, 2015 at 4:02

The term I would use is invective, which refers specifically to this kind of verbal sparring and is often used in Shakespearean scholarship.


I struggle to offer a single formal/literary word for 'trash-talk' without degrading the formality slightly and falling back on my local dialect where use of the word "Banter" broadly describes an "exchange" (a suggestion in itself) often malicious, or taken as such (but then Scots are misunderstanding of each other). All proper English though, I understand. I'd go with:

To have an exchange. To give gyp. To rip and deride. Banter (sour sort).

To square

...not very Shakespearean is it?

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    Actually the last is literally Shakespearean: "And now they never meet in grove or green, By fountain clear or spangled starlight sheen. But they do square, that all their elves for fear Creep into acorn cups and hide them there." - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act2, Scene 1.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 25, 2015 at 21:28

A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults. Louis Nizer

You might want to consider taunting.

Twit as a verb used occassionally by Shakespeare to describe these types of confrontation too.

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