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What Is a “Battle Royale”?

In past times, battles royale were brutal, and all too real. But today, most of them are pretend, played out on a video screen in games such as Fortnite.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 13, 2018

What is a battle royale.

Today’s tidbit is for all you Fortnite players out there—and all of you whose kids, friends, bosses, and spouses are playing Fortnite.

In case you don’t know, Fortnite is a wildly popular video game. More than 40 million people have downloaded it, and up to 2 million people have been recorded playing at the same time. When you enter the game, you can choose to play in one of two modes: Save the World or Battle Royale.

Recently, we started wondering, What is a “battle royale,” anyway?

Here’s the answer.

A “battle royale,” also spelled “battle royal,” is a fight between several combatants. It doesn’t have anything to do with kings or queens. The “royal” in this expression simply means big, ostentatious, or imposing. 

In the world of video games, “battle royal” describes a genre in which the goal of the game is to defeat multiple opponents and be the last player standing.

In the real world, it can refer to any heated dispute, free-for-all, or fight involving more than two people.

In the world of sports, it refers to a particularly bloody type of cockfighting. In traditional cockfighting (which is now illegal), two birds are placed in a fighting pit with sharp spurs hooked to their heels. They’re left to fight until one kills or disables the other. In a “battle royal,” though, many birds are “put down together in the pit, and the last surviving fowl gains the prize.” This fight was similar to one called the “Welsh main,” in which 16 birds were pitted against one another, then eight, then four, until only two of the poor creatures were left to fight.

And finally, in the world of boxing, a “battle royale” refers to an old-time fight in which several men would duke it out at one time. Battles royale were popular in England for centuries, but public opinion turned on them by the end of the 18th century. The “sport” moved to the American colonies, however, and flourished throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction. All too often, the fights involved black men—who were sometimes blindfolded—fighting before a white audience. In 1911, the New York State Athletic Commission banned such fights, describing them as “revolting spectacles.” The practice continued, however, for another 50-odd years. In fact, one such battle is a pivotal scene in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man.

So there’s your tidbit for today. A “battle royale” is any fight involving more than one person or creature. In can also mean a particularly intense fight. In past times, battles royale were brutal, and all too real. But today, most of them are pretend, played out on a video screen.

Bonus Web-only fact 1: What’s the plural of “battle royale”? We’d vote for “battles royale,” but the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists both that and “battle royales” as options. 

Bonus Web-only fact 2: “Battle Royale” also refers to a 2000 movie by Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku. The Hunger Games–like plot involves a class of ninth graders forced to fight one another to the death.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or on Twitter as @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Cooper, James W. Game Fowls, Their Origin and History, with a Description of the Breeds. Published by the author, 1869. 

Dent, Susie. Battle Royale. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Cockfighting (subscription required, accessed March 28, 2018).

Nash, John S. Wrestling with the Past: The Bizarre Origins of the Battle Royale – Part One and Part Two. SB Nation Cageside Seats, accessed March 28, 2018.

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Battle royal (subscription required, accessed March 28, 2018).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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