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What Is Persiflage?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 23, 2024
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Persiflage is idle talk, banter between or among friends and colleagues. Sometimes edgy, it’s often found among teammates in preparation for competition, or actually in competition. It sometimes takes the form of insults or teasing, but when it does, it’s not meant to hurt; instead, it’s good-natured, designed to make its target feel like “one of the boys.” Persiflage can sometimes seem like a never-ending game of one-upmanship, where each participant must somehow outdo the others.

The word persiflage has been transplanted whole from the original French. Its meaning, though, has been somewhat corrupted in the process. In French, to engage in persiflage is to mock someone, and is neither lighthearted nor benign. An idiomatic synonym for the English meaning, though, would be “to shoot the breeze,” perhaps with some gentle mockery. Thus, depending on one’s idea of “meaningful conversation,” most if not all talk shows consist predominantly of persiflage.

A commonplace feature of most human relationships, persiflage is also used frequently in art. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, it characterizes much of the gentle banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, just as it does some of Hamlet’s conversations with his good friend Laertes. Most of the dialogue of Act 5, Scene 1 is banter between the two gravediggers at a point in the play where just such a note of light and airy quip is so desperately needed to moderate the play’s tension. Shakespeare used it masterfully in his plays, although it’s sometimes hard to recognize because it’s in verse. Many classical authors, though, limited the dialogue in their works to serious discussions, each elegantly crafted word dripping with meaning and devoid of whimsy or serendipity.

Modern literature gives persiflage a full airing, though. It’s much more readily found there, and it translates to other modern media easily. A master of the medium is Robert B. Parker (1932-2010), whose modern, hard-boiled but sensitive detective Spenser spends more time in verbal gymnastics with his sometime partner Hawk and his all-the-time romantic partner Susan Silverman, PhD, than he does in sleuthing. The banter translates easily from the page to the screen. Another ready source is comic books and the movies they inspire, whose superheroes routinely engage in meaningless banter, especially with the supervillians they battle.

Bonding activities are often characterized by persiflage. The military is an excellent example, where a prime objective of the training is to develop recruits into a team. They’re driven hard and freely harangued with all manner of insulting criticisms and comparisons with odious creatures such as maggots. The training is hard for a purpose, though, and most recruits develop into good soldiers. Fictional depictions of the military portray it well; in one movie, two sergeants are preparing for war and one tells the other, “Don’t worry, you’re too ugly to die!”

Fictionalized relationships which seem to be characterized more by persiflage than actual discussions of meaningful issues, though, are not always accurate portrayals of actual life. Detectives, superheroes and platoon sergeants may get all the best lines in books and movies to cut the tension and keep everyone focused. Real life sometimes gives once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for such banter, however, as when U.S. President Ronald Reagan, being wheeled into surgery after he was shot in 1981, looked at the surgical team and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans!”

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