I came across the phrase ‘Them’s fighting words,’ in the beginning part of a Time magazine (July 12) article in its Swampland section under the title “Don’t mess with the stimulus! It had all your creamed spinach and more.”
The author, Michael Grunwald, seems to be defending Obama’s stimulus plan of infrastructure. The sentence in question reads as follows:
You know, the poor thing has no one to defend it but me. And me again. And yet again. So, its infrastructure spending was too “rushed,” and sent cash to the “least difficult and imaginative projects,” huh? Them’s fighting words!
I interpret “Them’s fighting words” to simply mean “They’re fighting words.” Can them be used as a subject being followed by the singular of “to be” and a transitive verb (fight) that takes the objective noun (words)? I’m puzzled if this is an established American usage of them or just a fashionable saying.
It’s not grammatically correct; it’s a common joking play on bad grammar, particularly on Southern U.S. dialects. I don’t know exactly when it was coined for popular usage, but the Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1930s through 1950s certainly made good use of it.
EDIT: here we go; from the American Heritage Dictionary for “fighting words”:
The ungrammatical use of them’s for “those are” emphasizes the folksy tone of this colloquialism, first recorded in Ring Lardner’s Gullible’s Travels(1917).
The term “fighting words” itself is a well-known and well-used term, even making it into U.S. Constitutional case law; “fighting words”, as in words spoken or written for the sole purpose of inciting a person to fight, are not “protected speech” under the First Amendment.
Read more in fighting word.