Word of the week

Word of the week: banter

My first encounter with the word “banter” was in this Monty Python sketch, wherein RAF pilots fail to understand each other’s reports of recent flying missions.

“Bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how’s your father. Hairy blighter, dicky-birdied, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harper’s and caught his can in the Bertie.”

This report is met first with, “Er, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, squadron leader” and is repeated word for word. Then, “No, I’m just not understanding banter at all well today. Give us it slower.”

Until this weekend I hadn’t seen or heard that sketch since the 1980s. Mine is the generation that could quote certain Monty Python sketches verbatim simply from listening to them repeatedly. My older brother had cassettes of some of the shows (this was before most homes had VCRs, let alone the internet) and we learnt the scripts without actively trying to, just like all the lyrics we learnt without seeing them written down. (The script of the entire sketch is available here, and I copied the words quoted above from that page.)

These days banter is defined as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”, though I think the emphasis is usually on teasing and the words might not be either playful or friendly. It can also degenerate into plain old abuse: one man’s idea of banter could be another man’s idea of old-fashioned insults. I have only once lost my temper at someone else’s “banter”, some stranger at a local newsagent, just after my mother had died. He said, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen” and laughed. Well, it had happened and, with rather more curse words than I would normally use when talking to someone for the first time, I told him so. And told him to mind his own business (again with a curse word thrown in there). He looked rather shocked (too shocked to apologize) but I was spared any more of his banter.

Banter is also what a lot of people do instead of having conversations. I enjoy conversations and often the topics to be discussed require more than a few trite observations. My answer to most questions beginning “Why” is “Many reasons” (as I wrote here). I answer many of the questions beginning “How is” (“How’s”) or “How are” with either “How long have you got?” or “We’ll need the full 20 minutes to discuss this one.” And we rarely get the full 20 minutes, so we might fall back on a few trite observations instead.

I wondered if there was, broadly (and as a generalization), a gender divide here: men banter and women have conversations. But I believe that there’s more to it than that. We are living in a post-factual world, where senior politicians tell us, “People … have had enough of experts”. In that spirit I’ll just make something up and say that introverts enjoy conversations and extroverts prefer banter. I’m sure that’s true, but I have no evidence to support it. Maybe we could have a conversation about it. Alternatively, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen. Hur-hur-hur-hur.”

[PS “Don’t fancy yours much … What’s your problem? … It’s just a bit of banter.”]




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