late 14c., altercacioun, "angry contention with words," from Old French altercacion "altercation" (12c.) and directly from Latin altercationem (nominative altercatio) "a dispute, debate, discussion," noun of action from past-participle stem of altercari "to dispute (with another)," from alter "the other" (see alter). The notion perhaps is of "speaking alternately."
Altercation is the spoken part of a quarrel, the parties speaking alternately. An altercation is thus a quarrelsome dispute between two persons or two sides. [Century Dictionary]