Banter noun good natured raillery, badinage, chaffing, teasing repartee, clever chit-chat, laddish drollery, facetious, ironic verbal to-and-fro
verb to converse teasingly, chaff, rib
A national sport? An elaborate private joke between likeminded people? A healthy bonding, a celebration of mateyness?
Banter matters, not least because of its links with bullying, sporting slurs, even rape. In more subtle ways it keys into topical issues like diversity, gender relations and class. Its subversive humour is central to our national identity. A proper investigation is overdue.
For someone like me who suffers long enforced absences in humourless territories overseas, it’s an important pleasure to keep in touch with our own vibrant national conversation, online via Twitter, MumsNet, Popbitch, etc. then to return in person and join in for real. But what a conversation. The soundtrack to modern Britain is made up of non-stop punning, teasing, riffing on catchphrases and clichés, knowing references to pop-culture tropes, gossip and ribaldry and sustained abuse of the privileged and pretentious.
Coming back to the UK, I’m always struck by the native wit immediately on offer from strangers, whether shop assistants, taxi drivers, football fans or simply anonymous citizens waiting in a checkout queue. Banter is absolutely central to an English sense of self and others. For us it’s a default setting. Only the English among all the peoples of the planet are required to be funny, about everything, all the time. It reflects both the worst – the strident endless chippiness – and the best – our cheerful fellow-feeling – of us as a people. In fact I think that where it was once the upside of the reserve and insularity that used to afflict us as a nation, those things no longer apply, leaving only a free-for-all by a newly empowered, insolent and fantastically talkative public.
I remember the first time I heard a man use the word ‘bantz’ as an abbreviation for ‘banter’, and he’s got the scars to prove it.
We should look more closely at the fascinating history of banter, consider its components: wit, facetiousness, irony, wordplay, sarcasm, looking at examples and analysing its uses: bonding, bullying, self-defence – and seduction. Examining both sides of this double-edged weapon, we have to consider both the cruelty (when black teenager Stephen Lawrence’s killers were questioned by reporter Martin Bashir about their racist video rant they replied ‘Harmless banter, Martin. Harmless banter’) and the poignancy associated with the practice (ex-players invariably cite it as what they most miss when they retire from sport; hard-pressed police officers I interviewed said that they measured a station by whether the team there ‘had good banter’).
“Whenever I see my husband naked he reminds me of a beautifully coloured bird”
“Well it’s more like a baby carrot to be honest”
The fun started in earnest, or, another view has it, the rot began to set in, when in October 2007 UKTV relaunched its UKTV G2 channel under the name of Dave. ‘Everyone knows a bloke called Dave’ the press release quipped. The channel’s slogan was, and is, ‘The Home of Witty Banter.’ It was thus that a national pastime which hitherto had gone unnoticed, or had been taken for granted, was highlighted, commercialised and sold back to its legions of fans. By 2012 the b-word was all over t-shirts, posters, mugs and websites, namechecked in radio and TV broadcasts and arraigned over and over again by right-thinking (or sanctimonious) journalists in the ‘quality’ press.
Hate it when I’m ironing and people say “can you do my shirt” & “iron these trousers” and “you’re going to have to leave sir, this is Ikea”.
Mutating from a mildly amusing tic into a divisive social issue, where did banter come from, and where is it going? It has come to be our defining characteristic, beloved of the football dressing room and Sky Sports, student bedsittees and Twitter devotees, loathed by Guardianistas, feminists and right-thinking metrosexuals…debated by the chattering classes, but practised – unusually – by all the classes, and, despite what some claim, all the genders, too.
Banter is a catch-all word for idiocy that warns the rest of us that Here Be Lads. Banter is Soccer AM. It is Andy Gray. It is middle-aged men on Top Gear pretending that they are edgy outsiders by mocking society’s weakest, then going home to Chipping Norton where they live two doors down from the Prime Minister. It is an English stag do in Dublin or Amsterdam with matching T-shirts
– Lizzy Porter, Daily Telegraph
Banter is arguably part of a very ancient tradition that takes in ‘flyting’, the ritual exchange of insults practised by Norse and Scottish poets in the fifth century. The word itself, though, is not so very old and its origins are unusually obscure. When bantering appeared, first as verb then as noun, in the street slang of the late seventeenth century it referred to exchanges that were more aggressive and vicious than the mild, playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks, often preceded in descriptions by ‘harmless’, ‘good-natured’ or ‘witty’, that it had become by the twentieth century. It first meant to trick or bamboozle somebody, to hold them up to ridicule and to give them a ‘roasting’, in a term of the day we still possess. The first recorded instance of the verb is in Madam Fickle, an otherwise unremarkable play of 1676 by Thomas D’Urfey, in which Zechiel cries to his brother: ‘Banter him, banter him, Toby. ’Tis a conceited old Scarab, and will yield us excellent sport — go play upon him a little — exercise thy Wit.’ A letter of 1723 equated banter with ‘Billingsgate’, the foul and vituperative language used by the porters at the London fish market of that name. Banter became notorious because of a spirited attack on it by Jonathan Swift in a famous article he wrote for The Tatler in 1710. In it he attacked what he called ‘the continual corruption of our English tongue’:
‘The third refinement observable in the letter I send you, consists in the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows; such as banter, bamboozle, country put, and kidney, as it is there applied; some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession of it. I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mob and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.’
In the same year he referred to the term in his Apology to The Tale of a Tub writing that ‘This polite word of theirs was first borrowed from the bullies in White-Friars, then fell among the footmen, and at last retired to the pedants; by whom it is applied as properly to the productions of wit, as if I should apply it to Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematics.’ Linguists have failed to identify the ultimate origin of the word, but I think it’s very probably from rural dialect, in which ‘banty’ can still mean small, aggressive and irritating.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries banter most usually denoted fairly gentle ribbing by friends, acquaintances and workmates. Its connotations have subtly changed again more recently, moving closer perhaps to its original edgier senses, but with added nuances. My survey of recent references from the US shows that there it is nowadays most often linked to the language of would-be seduction – invariably by hapless males of females – or to sales talk or business slogans. In the UK on the other hand it is most likely to be associated with sports fans (where it may be allied to the tradition of ‘sledging’), students (with their ‘neknomination’ drinking rituals and ‘violation nite’ initiation ceremonies) and of course with a myriad amateur and professional humourists, from the wannabe standups and scriptwriters competing for attention on social media sites to the established big guns firing off salvoes in Mock the Week, QI and the like.
Today, in celebration of Kierkegaard’s birthday, I’m slumped in a chair in a state of existential despair #curtainsclosedandeverything
Update from June 2017: I talked to Archie Bland about this subject and here is his long read in the Guardian this week…
And now, in May 2019, Billy Bragg comments on the visual banter that got Danny Baker fired by the BBC…