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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

talk smack

(1990’s | athletese | “throw or trade insults,” “banter”)

throw shade

(2010’s | celebritese? | “cut,” “belittle”)

Years ago, RuPaul tweeted, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.” I wouldn’t say that sums up the difference between “talk smack” and “throw shade,” but talking smack is much the less refined, devoid of the elegance required to throw shade. Yet both expressions take a decidedly derogatory aspect and are understood as elaborations on the insult, or diss, which ought to have a blog entry or two of its own.

“Talk smack” is older; it came along about the same time as “trash talk” but took a bit longer to get settled. (Also an athlete’s expression, by the way, but politicians and others use it happily.) It has not acquired a wide range of definitions, though it does come in a range of flavors, from playful to quite serious. “Smack talk” is the noun form; the verb phrase usually takes “on,” “about,” or no preposition at all, and the object is usually a person or small group. Now and then you’ll see it used as a rough equivalent of “play the dozens.” In whatever part of speech, the phrase probably arose from African-American youth culture. Major’s African-American slang dictionary (1994 edition) defines “smack,” among other things, as “flirtatious talk, ‘nonsense’ talk.” Not a precise synonym, but it seems distinctly related and does require talking, which Major’s other four definitions do not. The fact that “talk smack” was popular among wrestlers and their fans made me wonder if there’s a primal connection with “smackdown,” but now I’m inclined to doubt it.

Many of the characteristics of “talk smack” go with “throw shade” as well, but as noted above, they are still used in different settings. In a piece titled “Celebrity Slang,” Huffington Post defined “throw shade” thus: “To insult someone, especially in a haughty or condescending manner.” In practice, smack talk often conveys the express or implied sentiment that the target is inferior, but that’s not essential, and peers talk smack to each other. When you throw shade, you are taking the mantle of superiority, social or otherwise. You can find examples here and there before 2000, but this phrase did not come into its own until well into the new millennium (as I recall, I harvested it a few years ago from one of the family teenagers). It still sounds kind of fresh and up-to-date and may even be glossed occasionally. Its prepositions are “on” and “at,” possibly “towards.” Literally, “throw shade” is what trees do when they are in full foliage, and our expression’s origin most likely springs from that, related to the notions of overshadowing or looking down on. To “put someone in the shade” (sounds a little archaic now, doesn’t it?) meant to make their efforts or achievements seem puny, towering over them (metaphorically) so much as to block out the sun. “Shade” is one of those words that has pleasing associations in its literal sense, but gets underhanded in the figurative.

“Throw shade,” like “talk smack,” has a cooler and hotter temperature, running from “bring down a peg” to “sneer at.” It can also mean “cast doubt on,” which is still unusual but may make itself felt as an accepted definition in the next decade or two. “Talk smack” remains a bruiser of a phrase, at least for now, relying on brute force rather than la-di-dah pretension. “Smack” is a noisy word, after all, that descends easily into violence. No subtlety required.


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