I'm looking for a succinct way to describe what I believe is a semi-common situation, both in online discussions and sometimes in real life (e.g. with siblings during long car trips): when a discussion between two or more people turns sour, such that rather than discussing or debating the subject at hand, the people involved get sufficiently irritated with each other that they instead get drawn into a back-and-forth series of pointless/petty/passive-aggressive criticisms of each others' style, grammar, minor logical ambiguities, etc.

I might call this "hen-pecking" (in reference to possibly-apocryphal reports that chickens packed into too-close proximity with each other will eventually start pecking each other to death, and must therefore either be given more space, or fitted with red contact lenses to calm them down), but I think there might be a better, more well-known phrase that describes the phenomenon. Can anyone supply such a phrase?

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    – deadrat
    Jan 5, 2016 at 2:18
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    @deadrat: Yes, I know. But have you ever known a pissing contest to represent more than pointless bickering? It might start with a bone of contention, but by the time it has become a pissing contest the bone it typically long gone.
    – Drew
    Jan 5, 2016 at 2:45
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    The point of bickering is the bickering. It only seems pointless when you forget that. Now let's have a good clean row. Jan 5, 2016 at 3:11
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    You talkin' to me, @CandiedOrange? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Well, who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. No, wait. Everyone's here. Er, never mind.
    – deadrat
    Jan 5, 2016 at 3:19
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    I'm sorry, this is abuse. Jan 5, 2016 at 3:22

5 Answers 5


I would use "bickering" especially when those doing it are married or siblings.

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    Your term is apt, but your answer should have a citation or an example sentence.
    – ab2
    Jan 24, 2016 at 1:25

squabble is more emphasis on 'noisy', but does represent trivial quibbles.

  • You mean like double-trouble trebled quibble squabbles?
    – deadrat
    Jan 5, 2016 at 3:24

What I gather from the post seems to suggest CROSSTALK or XIANGSHENG meaning undesirable talk incidental to the topic of discussion.


It stretches the traditional definition, but you could call it mudslinging. To update it for the modern day internet, you could perhaps call it shitslinging and people would know exactly what you mean.

My first thought here, with regards to when this happens online, is the aphorism, "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it." It's a situation where both parties have ended up wallowing in the muck.

It's far more common to say the conversation has degenerated into slinging insults. But since you are looking for a description of the state, I'd say things have reached the point of mudslinging or shitslinging.


To borrow from other ugly spectacles:

cage match — the combatants have no way out

  sparring   — competitive training

  • A cage match implies a brawl, not a pointless, petty argument. Sparring is associated with fencing and the pointed blows that come with it. Neither are appropriate to describe last-resort ad hominem attacks.
    – mgw854
    Jan 5, 2016 at 23:52

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