As my sons Doug and Adam have spent more time surfing the Internet, they've seen plenty of examples of people leaving insulting comments on Facebook pages or YouTube videos just to get a reaction out of other people, who don't realize they're being played. They've also picked up the vocabulary for this kind of behavior: trolling. I've been familiar with the concept of trolling for 20 years now, but it turns out to have undergone some changes during that time.

I learned about trolling in 1992, shortly after I got my first email account and was introduced to Usenet newsgroups. I wasted a lot of time reading those newsgroups, and in particular the one for people interested in urban legends: alt.folklore.urban (AFU). Sometimes, among the legitimate posts, there would be the kind of insulting message that Doug and Adam still see today, and less-experienced users would respond in kind. There would also be the occasional message asking whether some supposedly true story was really an urban legend—except that the story would be such a well-known and obvious urban legend that only the newest arrivals to the group would take the question seriously. This 2006 addition to the Oxford English Dictionary sums up trolling pretty well:

To post a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.

The OED's first attestation of troll in this sense is from 1992, the same year I learned it, and from AFU, the same place I learned it. I didn't realize at the time that the Usenet, and more specifically AFU, was the origin of this meaning for the word troll. But sources agree. The October 1996 edition of Eric S. Raymond's The New Hacker's Dictionary has this definition (brackets his), complete with etymology:

[From the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban] To utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract predictable responses or flames. Derives from the phrase "trolling for newbies" which in turn comes from mainstream "trolling", a style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a bite.

The well-constructed troll is a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll.

If you don't fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.

The method of fishing that Raymond describes is, in fact, called trolling, but according to the OED, this is because of some confusion with another fishing-related verb, trawl. Trawl, whose etymology is uncertain, actually refers to two methods of fishing, as well as the equipment used in these methods. One involves dragging a net along the seabed to capture what lives there; the other consists of using "a buoyed line … having numerous short lines with baited hooks attached at intervals." The second of those methods is the one that Raymond refers to.

The troll/trawl confusion may be due not only to phonetic similarity, but to the fact that troll originally referred to yet another one or two methods of fishing. The origin of this troll may be from a French word meaning to hunt, or a German word meaning to roll. The OED sums up the whole troll/trawl mess at the beginning of its etymology for the verb troll, calling it, "A word or series of words of uncertain origin, and of which all the senses do not go closely together."

An earlier post from an admitted trolling enthusiast in 1994 makes the fishing analogy even more explicit. In a message on rec.pets.cats, Melvin Gladstone explained:

Perhaps I can shed some light on this subject as I've been trolling the net for quite a while …. Almost every group has sensitivities, r.p.c's … are just more obvious than most. That's why it's a target.

Here are your possible reactions:

Earnest response - mildly rewarding for the troller (if it were a fish you'd probably throw it back in, though)

Mild flame - quite rewarding (fillet for dinner)

Frothing at the mouth screaming - the best (a trophy fish)

Ignore - the most discouraging thing for a troller, humiliation

Without saying so explicitly, both Raymond's and Gladstone's definitions offer some extra information. Raymond's makes it clear that as a noun, troll can refer to the offending message itself, and Gladstone's explanation implies that who engage in trolling are referred to as trollers, at least in the 1990s. In fact, Raymond's definition is identical to one in a much-reposted Usenet message that is often referred to as "The Trollers' FAQ." (It's possible that Raymond wrote "The Trollers' FAQ," since the poster is anonymous.) These days, though, the preferred term is just troll.

We'll have more to say about troll the noun a little later. Meanwhile, between the 1990s and today, troll the verb has undergone some meaning changes. At the very least, its range has grown along with the Internet itself. In 1992, there was no World Wide Web at all, and now in the Web 2.0 era, the verb troll has naturally gone beyond the ancient Usenet to apply to other domains with user-generated content.

When it was coined, trolling reflected its fishing-related origin. It was generally intransitive, and if the victims were specified, it was in a prepositional phrase headed by for, as in trolling for newbies. Within that point of view, the thing that underwent the trolling was either the newsgroup, or the "bait"—i.e. the bogus post. For example, on January 15, 1993, Phil Gustafson wrote in a post to AFU, "Newer posters may not realize that munged Churchill quotes are among the hoariest baits trolled in afu." But get a load of this 1993 attestation from the OED, again from AFU: "This looks like perfectly good AFU material... Or have I just been trolled?" Here, it's the victim who has been trolled, and this new way of looking at trolling has caught on. Online, the phrase You've been trolled is common enough to have been shortened to YBT.

The meaning has progressed even further toward trolling specific individuals. Telling someone "You've been trolled," in the passive voice, might just mean that they were caught in a trap that was laid for anyone who might happen to encounter it, but saying in the active voice, "We trolled you" means you were a target. For example, Doug tells about an elaborate practical joke that two of his friends played on another one in the online game of Minecraft; it involved establishing an alibi while they burned his entire settlement to the ground, and convincing him it had been done by a monster rumored to exist in the game. In short, he says, they trolled him good. (This kind of behavior in videogames also has the more specific name of griefing.)

In fact, trolling has gone from referring to a particular kind of online practical joke, to referring to any kind of practical joke, online or offline. The website The Art of Trolling features a constantly updated stream of pictures, videos, photographs, and screenshots showing practical jokes, only some of which involve the Internet. For example, one photograph shows a car parked across two parking spaces, and someone has drawn a chalk line on either side of the car, labeling the newly created parking space "A space just for you!" Doug recounts the time when he and his friends were trolling another friend out in the real world. They stalked and spied upon him as he was taking a walk in the woods with his girlfriend. The trolling culminated with the friends surrounding the couple, coming out of hiding while snapping their fingers and singing, "We're the Jets!" (They had recently watched West Side Story in school.)

At the same time as troll the verb has been undergoing semantic broadening, troll the noun has supplanted the noun troller, as noted earlier. The reason is that another characteristic of trolling (beyond resembling a method of fishing) very quickly led to a mistaken etymology that firmly took hold. Specifically, the habit of making life unpleasant for unsuspecting victims is one shared with the supernatural, monstrous trolls of fairy tales such as "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." This troll is etymologically unrelated to the verb troll. According to the OED, it was borrowed from the Scandinavian languages in the mid-1800s. Even so, when people advise each other to ignore online trolling, the standard advice given is "Don't feed the troll(s)", not "Don't feed the troller(s)," and it's often illustrated with pictures of foul beasts. These days, troll is so much the preferred term that some people even correct others for the use of troller, as happens in this 2012 entry from Urban Dictionary:

People often make mistakes assuming that someone who trolls is called a troller, when really, there is no such thing. Someone who trolls is correctly called a troll.

The association of trolls with subhuman troublemakers has become even more solid since September 19, 2008, when (according to Know Your Meme), someone going by the handle of Whynne uploaded a comic featuring a leering, misshapen face on a stick-figure body to represent an Internet troll. The face, which has come to be known as trollface, has been extensively copied and reused since then, in numerous rage comics and other pieces of Internet humor depicting trolls.

In 1992, if you had asked me what lay at the intersection of fishing and monsters, I would have said Jaws or the Kraken. Now I can add trolls.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 15th 2012, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
What I would like to know is why gratuitous humiliation is such a prevalent aspect of internet behavior?

It's pretty easy to recognize troll behavior in forums, comment threads, etc. and it turns my stomach.
Wednesday August 15th 2012, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Jan L.
I wonder about the same thing and asked a teenage family member for his thoughts on this. He and his friends troll because "it's fun". When I asked if he would say the same things to someone's face, the answer was no. So, why is it okay to purposely humiliate someone online? The answer: "Because everyone does it and it's funny". But when someone trolled him, he didn't like it and asked them to stop. It's not just for teenagers. I see insulting and humiliating comments posted by adults. Seems to go hand in hand with the general decline in manners. It's depressing.
Thursday August 16th 2012, 5:50 PM
Comment by: Creek
It is just the nature of the beasts. Humans and the internet.
Monday August 20th 2012, 2:05 PM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
I see the word "troll" and automatically go to my childhood and the "Three Billy Goats Gruff"
What lurks under the bridge now apparently is the 3 trolls of the internet. Sigh. How times change language.
Monday August 20th 2012, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Carol B. (Rockland, ME)
Jan, the "because it's fun" answer is a direct lead-in to online bullying. Schools are now developing policies against this very thing (and with good reason) as it is insidious and dangerous. When did it get to be "fun" to humiliate? Well, always I guess, but we used to decry those people as "bullies" and they were outcasts for the behaviour. Anonymity is sometimes a very dangerous thing.

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