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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

trash talk

(1990’s | athletese | “needling,” “insults,” “bad or offensive language,” “insolence”)

“Trash talk,” meaning the banter or vituperation athletes exchange during a game, developed and grew out of the sports world. During the eighties, the phrase was encountered only in sportswriting; by the mid-nineties, it was appearing in political and arts journalism, and its denotation was quietly starting to spread. One early addition was the idea that trash talk was characteristic of defiant kids or adolescents. It was established enough by 2000 that it could be used jocularly in articles about municipal garbage collection; it had also been baptized as a verb by then (one that takes an indirect object, so you can trash talk someone). A lesser meaning that may have disappeared, but was available from the late eighties until at least 2000, comes from the rise of the sort of low-taste talk shows hosted by Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo Rivera. That usage was an adjective phrase, as in “trash-talk show.”

The phrase first conveyed slurs uttered in the heat of battle, with intent to distract, intimidate, or relieve tension. The fundamental purpose of trash talk is keeping the other player’s mind on something other than the game. And some great players have been notable for their skill in trash talking, particularly in football and basketball, where close quarters and violence open avenues for verbal exchange. But it doesn’t have to be clever; it can just be raw hostility designed to put the other guy back on his heels. Derision is the mainspring of trash talk, and the phrase always conveys animus. In politics, the idea isn’t to throw your opponent off stride so much as to blacken his character, so “trash talk” used in politics is a close cousin, perhaps an example of, negative campaigning. While the expression still turns up frequently in the sports pages, it has grown and spread quickly — the tabloids love it — and has taken on a range of meanings from empty rhetorical gestures to language offensive to a group (rather than a particular person) to slander (that is, discourse designed to trash another person). It may be something to take very seriously or something unworthy of the least attention.

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the formulation, because the primary meaning of “trash” is well established: something of no value. If the word were carried over literally, “trash talk” would mean idle boast or wasted words, vain statements with no action back of them. But the whole point about idioms is they’re not literal, isn’t it? And trash means other things, such as filth or perversity. As a verb, it means degrade, as in a reputation or a place. So “trash talk” may not be so opaque after all. “Talk trash” is older; I can hear it in my southern relatives’ voices: “Don’t talk trash!” “Trash” in that context meant nonsense, but it also indicated malice, so the command instructed us not to smear other people behind their backs. But it didn’t mean “engage in trash talk.” The athletes turned it around and made it theirs. I’m not sure if the rise of the phrase coincided with the rise of the phenomenon — that is, more and more ballplayers were taking verbal swipes at each other, creating conditions that demanded new expression. When I was a boy that sort of thing was still considered unseemly, at least among older fans. Players were expected to keep quiet, do their jobs, and not fraternize. True, there were always a few players known for yakking away during games, but it was considered a mark against them. Now such carrying on is much too ordinary to count against even the chattiest cager. And you don’t have to sit in the first row to hear it any more; players will cheerfully report it after the game.

One phenomenon that might have helped this phrase grow beyond the playing field was the rise of internet flame wars in the late nineties. Sometimes “trash talk” was used to refer directly to anonymous and (therefore?) hate-filled on-line rantings. Even when it wasn’t, the idea that it’s fun and sometimes necessary to flay a person you’ve never met gained currency, and the phrase became more useful as the idea took hold that our culture consists largely of insults bandied back and forth, whether between chat-room warriors or celebrities.

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