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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.