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What are the Origins of the Phrase "to Bandy Words"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom “to bandy words” has its origins in a violent and swift-paced game known as “bandy” which emerged in the 16th century. Over time, people began to use the term “bandy” to describe any sort of rapid, brutal exchange, and by the 17th century, people were specifically describing bandied words, although the use of variants like “bandy civilities” is even older.

Bandy is best described as a sort of field hockey, in which people move rapidly about the field and toss a ball to and fro. The term “bandy” was also used to describe a volley in an early form of tennis, although tennis as we know it did not emerge until the 18th century. Certainly by the 1600s, people were familiar with “bandy” in the sense of an exchange of some sort, and people were bandying looks, nations, and all manner of other things in the slang of the day.

When two people bandy words, they experience a quick, sharp exchange, typically characterized by being very witty and incisive. Crisp verbal exchanges have been highly prized in English debate and discussion for centuries, as the ability to bandy words with an opponent is viewed as a mark of intelligence, wit, and education. In order to bandy words effectively, someone has to have an even temper while thinking quickly on his or her feet to respond to charges made by an opponent.

Characters in the plays of Shakespeare are famous for their bandied exchanges, many of which were quite bawdy, in keeping with the social mores of the time. Other English authors are also famous for their brisk verbal sparring, such as Jane Austen, who notably wrote very sharp-witted female characters who often defied social expectation. Bandying words is still regarded as a positive personality trait in some English-speaking nations, and it can even be a job requirement in some cases.

However, the concept of bandying words can also acquire a negative connotation, as in instances where the term is used to describe someone who is quarrelsome. Although such exchanges can sometimes be intellectually stimulating and refreshing, the implication is that a tendency to bandy words at every occasion can become tiring, and it suggests that someone has an argumentative or difficult personality. It can be especially irritating when someone who is prone to picking fights often wins them, thus taking any potential enjoyment out of the experience.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Apr 19, 2014

Bandy is actually just a tennis stroke. It's a particularly fierce and fast stroke and possibly a response to a check. Now the term has come to mean different types of exchanges, but the true meaning of the word is about tennis.

By literally45 — On Apr 18, 2014

@bear78-- I suppose bandying, or arguing persistently, could be considered a skill. But like the article said, it's not always a good thing. My brother for example, argues all the time, he never gives up. I've finally stopped talking to him because there is no point. He will never give up until he "wins" the argument and he never listens to what anyone else says. Who would want to interact with someone like that?

There should be rules to bandying also. It should be an entertaining and an educational experience. It should be about wit, not ridiculing or judging others.

By bear78 — On Apr 17, 2014

Lawyers bandy words for a living. In order to win a case, a lawyer has to be swift and witty and counter the opponent's argument intelligently.

I think that bandying words is a gift. It could be learned to some extent but I do think that it's a skill that some people are just born with. I mean, not everyone can be a lawyer. It requires a a type of personality and mind set. One can learn the law and can learn effective argument techniques, but not every can bandy words successfully.

I took a law course when I was in college and there were some pre-law students in the class. When I saw the way those pre-law students argued to make a point, I realized that this is something that people are born with.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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