For example, in the following sentence, can we replace the phrase "friendly verbal duel" with a single word ?

Phelps invited Ted Frederickson, associate professor of journalism, to a ______________ (friendly verbal duel) on the issue of "homosexuals and the military"

I am aware debate is a possible word, but are debates always on friendly terms ? The stress is therefore on the word "friendly" in my question.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 18:29
  • Would the word 'chat' not suffice?
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 11:52

9 Answers 9


When people spar[verb] (or have a spar[noun]) over some topic, they have a friendly argument.

Phelps invited Ted Frederickson, associate professor of journalism, to a spar on the issue of "homosexuals and the military".

Phelps invited Ted Frederickson, associate professor of journalism, to spar over the issue of "homosexuals and the military".



1 A period or bout of sparring.

‘Remembering the spars she had had with the brothers, she smiled.’


1.1 Argue with someone without marked hostility:
‘mother and daughter spar regularly over drink, drugs, and career’

  • 8
    'Spar' also refers to physical practise fighting and without context (eg the first ODO example) can be quite ambiguous.
    – mcalex
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 4:40
  • 1
    That's interesting, the first time I encountered the word "spar" when used like this, was in a textbook and it had a negative connotation. In fact it was saying something like "avoid sparing when talking to people" and your relationships will be better.
    – Celeritas
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 4:18
  • I agree with @Celeritas -- the word sparring can easily refer to an argument that is unfriendly.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 15:21
  • I agree, also—sparring is at least as likely to be (or turn) hostile as debating is. Lots of hits for sparring matches that turn ugly, angry sparring, etc. Also, in modern parlance the noun would usually be the multi-word sparring match rather than simply spar, which as a noun much more often refers to a pole or outcrop of some sort. However, I suspect the actual answer to the question is "no" so this probably comes as close as anything.
    – 1006a
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 23:18
  • Sparring isn't specifically a "verbal" activity; in fact it's far more likely to be a physical activity as in boxing, wrestling, or fencing. To "invite someone to a spar", per the context of the question, is to invite them to a physical duel IMO. Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 2:47

A word with this connotation is banter:

an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks; good-natured raillery. - dictionary.com

  • 3
    @NickGammon Sparring is only ever done in a friendly context, otherwise you are simply fighting/arguing.
    – SGR
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 9:17
  • 3
    Well, see here where it says "To fight, especially as practice for martial arts or hand-to-hand combat". Or here where it says "Argue with someone without marked hostility". My argument is that "without hostility" is not the same as with friendliness. If I were a boxer I might get a sparring partner. That wouldn't necessarily be a friend. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 9:41
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    Banter has no meaning of a duel or contest Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 12:41
  • 2
    @NickGammon but sparring in boxing IS considered friendly generally speaking.
    – Brian H.
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 13:55
  • 3
    I don't think banter carries the connotation of actually discussing something. It's more like entertaining small talk.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:41

noun: repartee

conversation or speech characterized by quick, witty comments or replies.


banter, badinage, bantering, raillery, witticism(s), ripostes, sallies, quips, joking, jesting; formal persiflage

"an evening of wit and repartee"

-- Google


A bit esoteric, yet apt, is the word dialectic, which Aristotle referred to as the counterpart to rhetoric.

A dialectic is an informed discussion on any given topic which involves, among other things, verbal sparring; defining of key terms and appropriate qualifications for those terms; arriving at either a breakthrough or an impasse.

Persuasion is certainly on the fringes of a dialectic, but the guiding purpose of a true dialectic is to arrive at what might be called a transcendent view which incorporates the insights of all the participants, yet allows for modifications and refinements of, and amendments to, its tentative conclusions.


I'd probably use palaver. My assumption is that the meeting is for the benefit of Phelps, to help him frame the issues in the way they are likely to be framed by the media and the public, so as to come off a bit better in future, more public, discussions. The word has several shades of meaning, definition one is

1a : a long parley usually between persons of different cultures or levels of sophistication
1b : conference, discussion

And there is this historical note on the etymology -

During the 18th century, Portuguese and English sailors often met during trading trips along the West African coast. This contact prompted the English to borrow the Portuguese palavra, which usually means "speech" or "word" but was used by Portuguese traders with the specific meaning "discussions with natives." The Portuguese word traces back to the Late Latin parabola, a noun meaning "speech" or "parable," which in turn comes from the Greek parabolē, meaning "juxtaposition" or "comparison."

"Palaver." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2017.

I like this word specifically because the LGBT issue in the military has long been framed as a battle over "military culture" in the US.


I would use 'debate', but considering how the presidential "debates" went last year, that may have gained some distinctly unfriendly connotations.

In lieu of 'debate', the next best option would seem to be 'discussion'.

Here're a few definitions from Merriam-Webster:

consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate

conversation for the purpose of understanding or debating a question or subject

If the discussion is not friendly, it often gets an adjective, like a "heated discussion", or a "tense discussion".

  • I don't think discussion connotes either dueling or friendliness. You can discuss the same side, or in a perfectly neutral manner. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 18:45
  • @MatthewRead You could certainly have a discussion for the purpose of gaining understanding, as indicated in the included definitions. But, discussions usually involve some level of debate, as also noted in the included definitions. Can't imagine assuming a discussion was not friendly without additional context or modifiers.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 22:58

If the duel is light-hearted, you might consider badinage:

badinage |ˈbadɪnɑːʒ| noun [ mass noun ]

humorous or witty conversation: he developed a nice line in badinage with the Labour leader.


May I suggest disputation.

Disputation: "An academic exercise in oral defense of a thesis by formal logic".


  • Does this involve a second party? Or friendliness? Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 18:46
  • @MatthewRead It connotes to my way of thinking a one-on-one situation and what passes as a formal setting of a verbal debate among two academics and/or representatives of factions holding different ideologies or beliefs, all this in a situation that is designed to foster a debate. I don't think such an interaction can successfully take place without a mutual sense of respect for one another, but as to whether this is conducted in friendliness will very much depend on the nature of the disputation. Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 2:23

Aside from palaver, disputation, debate and perhaps dialectic, many of the previous suggestions have addressed the kind of talk that would go on within the “friendly verbal duel”. This is true of spar, banter, repartee, badinage, all of which are forms of humorous, witty, or argumentative talk. These latter four forms of talk could go on within such a duel, but do not in any way describe its overall form.

In addition to palaver, debate, etc., words like the following may be appropriate:

symposium, “A conference or other meeting for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants make presentations” — en.wiktionary [An additional definition of symposium" may be relevant: “(in ancient Greece) A drinking party, especially one with intellectual discussion”.]
conference, “An event organized ... to discuss a pressing issue ...” — en.wiktionary
forum, “A gathering for the purpose of discussion” and “A form of discussion involving a panel of presenters and often participation by members of the audience” — en.wiktionary
panel discussion, “A conversation about a specific topic conducted by a group of experts, usually either in the presence of an audience or in a broadcast ” — en.wiktionary
roundtable, “A conference at which participants of similar status discuss and exchange views” — en.wiktionary
seminar, “A meeting held for the exchange of useful information...” — en.wiktionary

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