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What do you call someone who likes picking fights? The only expression I've heard so far is "shit stirrer" (sorry for the curse word).

Is there anything out there that's less slang-like? Something I can say to anyone without using the word "shit"?

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    Do you want a term that refers primarily to picking physical fights, or do you want a more general term for causing inter-personal conflict? – Jasper Mar 9 at 2:49
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    It seems you want a noun. Many of the answers have given you an adjective. If you gave an example sentence with a blank representing the word you want, you'd get better answers. E.g. "John likes to pick fights. He is a ____." – CJ Dennis Mar 10 at 5:23
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    Do they pick fights that they get into, or do they start fight between other parties? I ask because shit-stirrer is generally someone who lets person A know about something bad person B did, and then runs to person B to tell him about person A's reaction. But in the ensuing bunfight, the 'stirrer' plays no actual part - except perhaps to egg on the combatants. – mcalex Mar 11 at 6:19

13 Answers 13

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The first word that jumped to my mind is the adjective belligerent.

Some published definitions include:

  • inclined or eager to fight; hostile or aggressive.

  • Aggressively hostile, eager to fight; acting violently towards others.

  • hostile and aggressive: a bull-necked, belligerent old man.

  • I see belligerent mostly used in context of intoxicated individuals (at least in the U.S.). While the actual definition may not necessarily involve alcohol, that's the first thing I think about when seeing this adjective. – Chris Cirefice Mar 9 at 10:50
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    My AmE sense is that applied to a person it's a temporary rather than fundamental description. – chrylis Mar 11 at 4:08
  • Agree with the other comments how belligerent is a more temporary descriptor with a strong connotation that the person's behavior is due to intoxication rather than referring to some one who is prone to starting fights in general. – Shufflepants Mar 11 at 18:26
  • @Shufflepants - Sure, it's often used that way (which is why I upvoted the previous comment by chrylis), but not exclusively used that way. Some contemporary news articles, e.g.: "[Lincoln's] successor, Andrew Johnson, was a belligerent man who devoted himself to undermining the rights of freed slaves and wound up getting impeached by the members of his own party." "Some people have trouble reconciling [Rham] Emanuel's reputation as a belligerent politician with his career in ballet." "Cpl. Schneiders eventually was labeled as a belligerent [police] officer and forced to medically retire." – J.R. Mar 11 at 18:52
21

Such a person is a hothead or a bruiser, or has a chip on his/her shoulder.

According to Vocabulary.com,

A hothead is someone who's suddenly and easily angered or agitated. It's usually a hothead who starts a riot or turns a peaceful protest violent.

Source: https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/hothead

According to CollinsDictionary.com,

A bruiser is someone who is tough, strong, and aggressive, and enjoys a fight or argument.

Source: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/bruiser

18

Pugnacious fits:

Eager or quick to argue, quarrel, or fight.
Oxford Dictionaries

You can also check its synonyms. Merriam Webster has a good comparison of them.

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    It might get you some funny looks, though. I don't think I've ever heard someone use the word. – Arcanist Lupus Mar 9 at 8:10
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    I used this word in casual conversation just a few days ago. It did not get any funny looks. – barbecue Mar 9 at 19:30
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The adjective quarrelsome is a good word to describe someone who likes to argue with other people. Many times, they do that just for the heck of it. A quarrel is a fight, but not one that's physical. The following is the definition of quarrelsome as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary:

A quarrelsome person repeatedly argues with other people.

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Another possible answer, though more general, is "instigator."

Definition: "a person who brings about or initiates something." (Google)

You will still have to use the word "fight" (or a synonym of it):

He really likes instigating fights.

I still think belligerent is a better answer, but using "instigator" specifically focuses on the fact that the person in question likes to initiate the fights, as opposed to someone who has a high temper and reacts to instigations violently.

  • I think instigator can work in more playful contexts, too – like for someone who likes to instigate good-natured pranks. But, given the right surrounding context (like in your example sentence), this word can work well. – J.R. Mar 10 at 10:32
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    Note that instigator is a bit wider in definition. It would also apply to someone who likes to cause fights between two other parties (not themselves). This is still the word I would use though, so +1 – Flater Mar 11 at 9:28
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You may want to use the word troublemaker.

A person who consciously or unconsciously causes trouble (merriam-webster).

It's flexible enough to be used for physical or verbal situations. The word is also free from profanities and is often used in professional settings.

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    This is actually the best answer so far (clean, as you say, and the most commonly used in "non-slangy" contexts). Welcome to ELL! If you haven't taken it already, there's a bit of an introductory tour. – Will Crawford Mar 10 at 13:03
  • This doesn't particular signal intent to start a fight. Trouble doesn't always equate to a fight. It could be pranking, interruptive behavior, ... If OP wants to precisely point out that the person wants to pick fights, then "troublemaker" is not sufficient. – Flater Mar 11 at 9:31
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Consider the words below:

  • Scrapper (informal) - a fighter or aggressive competitor, especially one always ready or eager for a fight, argument, or contest (source).
  • Fighter - a person who physically fights another person (note that the word is often used to talk about professional boxers and just strong people who don't give up easily, but in the right context the word may be what you are looking for).

By the way, a shit stirrer is a person who takes pleasure in causing trouble or discord. It's not specifically someone who loves picking fights. They may like that too, though.

  • I think scrapper is the best of the lot, it doesn't have any other meanings like being argumentative or stubborn, it specifically means someone that likes to get into fights. – NibblyPig Mar 11 at 10:27
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belligerent, contentious, aggressive, truculent, combative, pugnacious, etc. depending on the exact context. I agree with Laurel that M-W has good guides for choosing the right word - you can see one such guide here under “choose the right synonym”.

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If you're talking about a non-physical fight, "rabble-rouser" is a clean alternative to "shit-stirrer".

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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Instead of saying

  • He's a shit-stirrer.

You can say

  • He's a fire-eater. (synonym of belligerent in this case)

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

fire-eater:

  1. A belligerent person or a militant partisan.

Other synonyms: bellicose, pugnacious, combative, belligerent.

These adjectives mean having or showing an eagerness to fight.

More referring to willingness/tending to get into an argument: antagonistic, contentious, quarrelsome, argumentative...

Regarding idioms, you can simply say

  • He's always looking to pick a fight / quarrel. (in itself an idiom, for both arguments and physical fights)
  • He's always asking for a fight / trouble.
  • He's always crusing for a bruising. (slang)
  • He's always spoiling for a fight.
  • He's always arguing for the sake of arguing / the argument.

Slightly more specific, but appliable to general cases:

  • He's always arguing the toss. (chiefly British, arguing over something already decided)
  • He has a chip on his shoulder. (showing resentfulness)
  • He always ends up cutting up rough. (chiefly British, suddenly becomes angry and violent)
  • Interesting. I’ve not heard fire-eater used for this. But I have to upvote anyway, because I really like the “arguing for the sake of arguing” suggestion. – J.R. Mar 11 at 9:02
  • I would upvote bellicose, but not all of your 14 suggestions. – Davo Mar 11 at 17:11
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Another option which no one else seems to have mentioned: Combative, defined as:

ready or eager to fight; pugnacious
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I like fractious — it originally referred one inclined to make “fraction” (discord), now it means “irritable; argumentative; quarrelsome”.

“...in his present fractious mood, she dared whisper no observations, nor ask of him any information.”
— Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

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If it's someone who picks fights they know they'll win, they're a bully. This still works when the fights are purely verbal.

Someone who simply likes to fight, and may not necessarily bear any ill will towards their opponent, is a brawler. This only applies to physical violence.

If they're prone to picking verbal fights, you might describe them as argumentative (adjective).

Someone who is prone to sudden and unpredictable violence may colloquially be described as a psycho, nutter, or variations on the theme of mental instability.

protected by J.R. Mar 10 at 10:43

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