Trash talk

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Tank McNamara's current plot series starts from Connor McGregor's recent injury:

Markku Uusipaavalniemi exists, and is prominent enough to have a Wikipedia entry, though it doesn't flag his trash talking skills. The entries for the other cited athletes also don't mention the topic, although there is a Wikipedia entry for "trash-talk", which says that "Trash-talk was commonly used by the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and 70s", and cites Conor McGregor as "a more recent example of a prominent trash-talker".

The OED added an entry for trash talk in 2008, updated in 2019, glossed as "Speech which condemns a person as trash; (Sport) ostentatiously insulting or boastful rhetoric delivered with the intention of demoralizing, intimidating, or humiliating an opponent; (also, in extended use) any derisory or boastful statement or statements". The earliest OED citation for that sense is from 1981:

1981 Washington Post (Nexis) 24 Sept. f1 Folks think Leonard has gotten above his raisings, moving out to a mansion in the country, and..has forgotten other black men… Mike McDaniel would fight you before agreeing to such trash talk.
1990 Sports Illustr. 4 June 48/3 He also amplified Janney's nightmare with a steady stream of trash talk and a maniacal grin.
2000 Time 18 Dec. 43/1 The five..conservatives..voted to issue the stay… The dissenters concluded that the majority had ‘acted unwisely’—which passes for serious trash talk on the high court.

The 1981 WaPo citation implies that the term was already in general use at that point. I think I remember "trash talk" being used in an athletic context in the 1960s. But the semantic drift involved is so natural and gradual that the cumulative innovations in usage may have happened multiple times.

The original meaning of the word trash, according to the OED, was "That which is broken, snapped, or lopped off anything in preparing it for use; broken or torn pieces, as twigs, splinters, ‘cuttings from a hedge, small wood from a copse’ ( Eng. Dial. Dict.), straw, rags; refuse", with citations to 1555.

1555 Bill in Chancery in Athenæum 17 July (1886) 92/2 A carpenter's yarde, wherein he dothe laye his tymber and Trasshe.
1574 E. Hellowes tr. A. de Guevara Familiar Epist. 407 How wil he giue wood to the hospitall, that warmes him selfe by the trash of straw?
1676 J. Evelyn Philos. Disc. Earth 181 If you lay any fearn-brakes or other trash about them.
1693 T. Urquhart & P. A. Motteux tr. F. Rabelais 3rd Bk. Wks. l. 401 They very Trash the woody parcels.

The generalization to the metaphorical sense  "Anything of little or no worth or value; worthless stuff; rubbish; dross. (Said of things material or immaterial)" seems to have been instant — the OED's citations date from 1529, earlier than the literal (?) sense:

a1529 J. Skelton Magnyfycence (?1530) sig. Giv As for his plate of syluer and suche trasshe.
1612 T. Taylor Αρχὴν Ἁπάντων: Comm. Epist. Paul to Titus (ii. 14) 515 What can the Papist say now for his mony-masses, pardons, indulgences, and such trash.
a1616 W. Shakespeare Othello (1622) iii. iii. 162 Who steales my purse, steals trash .

And similarly the slightly narrower sense "Worthless notions, talk, or writing; nonsense; ‘rubbish’, ‘stuff’'":

1542 N. Udall tr. Erasmus Apophthegmes Erasm. Pref. Like trash & bagguage been those saiynges that are incidente in oracions.
1659 J. Milton Considerations touching Hirelings 138 Those theological disputations..rather perplex and leaven pure doctrin with scholastical trash.
1737 H. Fielding Hist. Reg. 1736 i. 3 My Register is not to be fill'd..with Trash for Want of News.
1874 F. C. Burnand My Time xxx. 293 Don't let me hear any more of such trash.

So phrases like "talk trash" have been Out There for a long time — thus this passage from the Sedalia Weekly Bazoo, 6/13/1882:

The contextual narrowing to "domestic refuse, garbage" was apparently a U.S. innovation, dated to the early 20th century:

1906 H. de B. Parsons Disposal of Municipal Refuse iii. 21 Rubbish is discarded trash, composed principally of all kinds of paper, wood, rags, mattresses, bedding, boxes,..tin cans,..bottles,..and the like.
1925 Amer. City Jan. 54/2 The collection of garbage and trash may be made by the city with its own organization.
1931 W. G. McAdoo Crowded Years i. 12 The abandoned..building… Its steps were littered with trash, and were broken.

I'm certain that cultural norms for abuse of opponents, in athletic as well as military contests, have been around for a long time — there's some trash talk in the story of David and Goliath, for example.

But the question for today is, when and where did the term "trash talk" start being used in its modern athletic sense?

The New York Times doesn't start using the term in the sports section until the 1990s, though at that point they assume that everybody knows what it means — e.g. Robert Lipsyte, "The Art of Trash Talk Not Limited to a Court", 6/5/1994:

Three of the greatest trash talkers in the history of sports — Muhammad Ali, Henry Kissinger and Marge Schott — made encore performances recently as if to remind the current designated mouths that there have been giants in the field. Call it Homeric boasting, bench jockeying, psyching out, trash talk is the latest label for a line of hostile chatter that goes back at least to Cain putting down Abel before eliminating him from the race. […]

It was Ali, first as Cassius Clay, who brought bodacious black style to the global village as a way of talking his opponents off balance and publicizing his fights. He sold real tickets along with wolf tickets. The cultural commentator, Nelson George, has pointed out that Ali's descriptions of himself as "pretty" was the "mack talk" of pimps and his assigning animal names to his opponents — Sonny (the Big Ugly Bear) Liston and Floyd (the Rabbit) Patterson — was in the African tradition of elevating oneself by dehumanizing one's enemies. George even saw Bundini Brown, Ali's assistant trainer for uplift, as a kind of Mr. Interlocutor from the minstrel shows.

The mostly black-on-black trash talking in pro basketball delights some, offends others. Is it a further expression of creative style (hip-hop hoops?), a reflection of street-corner desperation; is it indicative of the game's tilt from finesse to confrontation?

The Google Ngrams plot also points to the 1990s as the starting point of widespread "trash talk" usage in the general literate culture. But there's evidence of a relevant not-limited-to-sports sense in Black vernacular much earlier, e.g. this 1933 snippet from Story:



  1. john burke said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 9:28 am

    Weekly Bazoo? BAZOO?? Wow. A misspelling and an agreement error in the very first sentence… For sale, cheap: Weekly Bazoo Style Manual. (Very lightly used.)

    [(myl) Wiktionary on "bazoo". Note that they also spell the month as "Jufe" in that article's lead…


  2. Dwight Williams said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 9:32 am

    Trash-talking as an art form and spectator sport?

    I seem to remember David Gerrold working some thoughts on the subject into his Star Trek novel The Galactic Whirlpool decades ago. Good to see the idea has not gone away!

  3. Doreen said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 10:05 am

    Maybe there could be a Comedy Central/ESPN crossover spin-off based on Roast Battle.

    [(myl) But probably not an NCAA or Olympic event, alas…]

  4. Brett said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 3:49 pm

    I don't think I had never made the connection before between mack talk and talking smack/smack talk (which means basically the same thing as trash talk). Of course smack adds the further imagery of metaphorically slapping one's target around.

  5. Linda said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    Is it the same as flyting?

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 3:12 pm

    The derogatory-social-class sense found in e.g. "poor white trash" is attested in AmEng as early as the 1830's, long predating the "household garbage" sense, although perhaps the former has been reinterpreted by more recent generations as a metaphorical extension of the latter? But that earlier sense may have been in play in the Weekly Bazoo and the seemingly-modern usage of "trash talk" from 1933.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 7:50 pm

    The 1981 WaPo cite could use some additional context; unlike the 1990 cite, it is not at all obvious that it is using "trash talk" in the sense of performative braggy insults. On its own, it can easily be interpreted as just the attribution of worthlessness to the comments described as "trash talk".

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