Friday, 9 August 2013

Don't Feed the Troll Fishers

I've been reading Netymology by Tom Chatfield. It's all about the etymology of computer terms. Thus I have discovered that trolls do not come from Scandinavia and lurk under bridges. They come from almost everywhere else. Sort of.

The verb troller first appears in Medieval French. It meant going out hunting without having any specific animal in mind. Imagine, if you will, a medieval Frenchman wandering through a wood with a bow and arrow and shooting any animal he felt like.

That verb came straight into English as to troll. So Piers Plowman has:

And þus hath he trolled forth þis two & thretty winter.

And Bryan Ferry has:

Aggravated. Spare for days.
I troll down-town, the red light place

In fact, the OED specifically mentions that troll became gay slang for cruising. But trolling also kept its non-metaphorical hunting sense with troll fishing. This is when you just attach a baited line to the back of your boat and sail around in the vague hope that something will bite.

This is one of those classic cases where the word could have come from trolling, and could have come from trailing, and probably came from both. It's just so convenient that the words sound alike.

So whether a trollnet was really a trawl net or a troll net is hard to say:

No Person..withe any..Crele, Rawe, Fagnett, Trollnett..shall take..Spawne or Frye of Eeles, Salmon, Pyke or Pyckerell. (1558)

But it does seem to be that sense of throwing out bait and seeing who'll take it that gave us the original Internet trolls.

Ask anybody techie and they'll insist that a troll is somebody who posts deliberately provocative comments in an online forum, not because they believe them, but because they want to see who'll get angry, who'll bite. This was the original meaning back in the early nineties. Thus the Toronto Star reported in 1995 that:

Posts that are designed to encourage angry responses are called ‘trolls’ because the purpose is to fish for flames.

But, of course, far fewer people have heard of troll fishing, or indeed of aimless Frenchmen, that have heard of the nasty Scandinavian creatures that hide under bridges. People soon forgot the original precise meaning of trailing a bait, and that is why, under the influence of the Scandy creature, we now use troll to mean anybody on the Internet who's nasty.


  1. As Julian and Sandy invariably enquired, 'What brings you trolling in 'ere, then?'

  2. My Dad used to go trolling for trout in Lake Taupo, New Zealand. This involved slowly towing a lure on a long line behind the boat.

  3. Love your blog. So, are "trolling" and "trawling" interchangeable, then?

    By the way, you've got an "it's" that should be "its" up there...not being a "troll" - just proofreading.

    1. Not interchangeable, but they're similar enough to influence each other. As with verb and noun of troll, which are unrelated, but have both worked to produce the current understanding of the word.

  4. Be careful to distinguish the person doing the trolling from the troll. While the discussion is spot on about the historical usage on newsgroups, that doesn't make the person sending out the "bait" into a troll. (Just as a fisherman is not a fish). Indeed it is/was common for people to berate the "fishermen" with the phrase "Don't feed the trolls".