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I was reading an article on CNN about America's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and read:

A battle royal is shaping up in Tehran's corridors of power.

I'm familiar with this term from wrestling, where many competed in the ring at the same time when I used to watch wrestling. It's sometimes spelt battle royale (stress on second syllable).

From Merriam-Webster Dictionary it means:

1 a : a fight participated in by more than two combatants; especially : one in which the last fighter in the ring or the last fighter standing is declared the winner
b : a violent struggle
2 : a heated dispute
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

It's mostly used figuratively, ie., no one literally and physically fights. Where it is used in the real fighting sense it's associated with professional wrestling (the entertainment type).

I was wondering if such a fight among many people exists outside of professional wrestling, ie., karate, MMA, street brawls, boxing, etc. And also what the origin of this is? Does it date back to an old custom or is it of recent coinage?

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A search of Early English Books Online yields three instances of battle (or battel) royal earlier than the 1672 instance cited in the Phrases.org discussion and in k1eran's answer—and two of those three instances explicitly involve cockfighting. The instances occur in books published in 1655, 1662, and 1671.

From Thomas Fuller, The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year M.DC.XLVIII (1655):

Humphrey Plantagenet, Duke of Glocester, William Delapole, Duke of Suffolk, Richard Nevil, Earl of Warwick. Betwixt the three last there was as it were a battel Royal in this Cockpit, each of them hating and opposing another. In all these contests their ambition was above their covetousness; it being every ones endeavour not so much to raise and advance himself, as ruine and depress his adversary.

From Thomas Fuller, The history of the worthies of England who for parts and learning have been eminent in the several counties : together with an historical narrative of the native commodities and rarities in each county (1662):

I am sadly sensible, that being to treat of the Worthies in several professions; I shall incur many mens displeasure, in not ranking th[e]m according to their own desires; the rather because there always hath been a Battel Royal about Precedency, betwixt, 1. Swordmen and Gow[n]men: 2. Swordmen and Swordmen: 3. Gownmen and Gownmen:

From Edward Howard, The six days adventure, or The new Utopia a comedy as it is acted at his Royal Highness the Duke of York's theatre (1671):

Featlin: The Ladies are in consultation about us.

Frank: Perhaps they will chuse us by lots or else play us together like a battle Royal of Cocks.

Featlin: But I have design'd my match otherwise, if Fortune be not peevish and hinder me.

These instances indicate that the association of battle (or battel) royal with cockfighting goes back at least to 1655, and they suggest that cockfighting may already have been the primary connotation of the phrase at this early period.

The earliest slang dictionary coverage of "battle royal" that I've been able to find is in Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, second edition (1788):

BATTLE-ROYAL. A battle or bout at cudgels or fisty-cuffs, wherein more than two persons are engaged: perhaps from its resemblance, in that particular, to more serious engagements fought to settle royal disputes.

But John Badcock, Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the Varieties of Life (1823) has this entry for the term:

Battle-royal—(Cockpit), several cocks put in the pit together. Men (Irish mostly) enact the same kind of Pell-mell trick, at times: 'Tis ever a scandalous proceeding; and often attended with loss of life.

I suspect that Francis Grose was either unaware of the cockfighting sense of the term "battle royal" or chose not to report it in his dictionary of slang. The fact that the phrase was used in the middle 1600s in connection with cockfighting and then appeared in a glossary of sporting slang in 1823 in the same sense strongly suggests that "battle royal" may well have been in continuous use in English cockfighting lingo across the entire period.

  • Now that is interesting. Words' origins are very elusive. Good research. – Zebrafish May 16 '18 at 7:43
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I think its modern usage has sky-rocketed since 1999 book by Japanese author Koushun Takami ( Wikipedia ) and the resultant film and video games.

However it dates back to at least 1672 according to phrases.org.uk :

'Battle royal' may refer to a conflict in which many are involved or be simply a general reference to an intense conflict. In the latter case 'royal' is merely added as an intensifier. Whatever the meaning, there has never been any actual regal involvement implied. The 'royal' is invoked to mean 'a battle fit for a king' as opposed to 'a battle involving a king'.

The term was used particularly to refer to cock-fighting, where large numbers of birds were sometimes engaged in 'battle royal' fights to the death. However, the first citations of the phrase don't relate to cock-fighting explicitly, so whether the expression originated with cock-fighting and then became a more general term for raucous fights isn't clear. The first known record in print is from James Howard's comic play All Mistaken, or the Mad Couple, 1672: "Hist - now for a battle-royal.".

The first citation that refers directly to cock-fighting is General Thomas Perronet Thompson's Audi alteram partem, 1857–61:
"Cockerels crow across a ditch, till they get up a battle-royal."

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    So it seems to be a general English expression for a big fight (of people or cockerels or whatever else), that's obviously been taken up by professional wrestling as a spectacle. Thanks, that was a useful reference. – Zebrafish May 9 '18 at 19:17

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