I posted this on a bulletin board where people were complaining about 'trolls', ie Internet users who post deliberately inflammatory comments, in the hope of starting a heated argument. There was some discussion about the origin of the word, and this was my contribution:

Of Trolls and Trolling

In my youth, I would occasionally take a boat out into the English Channel, where I would go trolling for fish, usually seabass. Trolling refers to the practice of dragging the bait through the water, to attract the fish. Etymologically, the word is unrelated to ‘trawl’ or ‘trail’, as one might think, but to ‘stroll’ (OED). It is also unrelated in its origin to the troll of Nordic Folklore.

Over time, the word has come to be used metaphorically, in a variety of situations (“She dolled herself up, and went trolling for a man”, “ESPN is trolling for a new SportsCenter host”) although I think in modern usage, the word is rare, except for the relatively recent use to refer to Internet trolling. Internet trolls were, and mostly still are, users who deliberately make inflammatory comments online, for the ‘fun’ of watching the results when someone ‘takes the bait’.

It is easy to see how Internet trolls – instead of being known as ‘trollers’, which would have been more logical - became associated with the other, Nordic troll. They are malevolent, despicable creatures. The homophony is apt. And now the definition of the word is widening rapidly, to include ‘cyberstalking’, ‘lurking’ and other evils. I suppose one reason the word has assumed such a broad meaning is the delightfully pejorative flavor the sound of it has.

If you should adopt a troll,
Please keep him clean and neat.
Take him for his daily stroll
With well-combed hands and feet.
Never, ever feed him cheese,
Or let his ears get wet.
Most of all, ensure that he’s
Kept off the Internet!

Home        Work        Writings        Hummingbirds        Caviar        Links