Shashi Tharoor’s Word Of The Week: Troll
How did a creature from Norse mythology become emblematic of anti-social behaviour on social media?
Troll (verb, noun): (Verb) 1. To try to lure or incite someone by passing something where they can see it; 2. to issue hostile or offensive social media posts. (Noun) 1. A Norse demon that lives under bridges; 2. someone who posts provocative messages to social media intended to cause maximum disruption.
Usage: The ruling party engages a well-organised army of trolls to attack those of different political views on social media.
The origin of the modern usage of ‘troll’ is something of a mystery. How a creature from Norse mythology -- ugly and slow-witted, dwelling in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, and often quite hostile to human beings – became emblematic of anti-social behaviour on social media is a mystery, since Norwegians didn’t invent Twitter!
In Norse mythology, an ancient tale from the 9th-century book Skáldskaparmál describes an encounter between a reciter of heroic verse, Bragi Boddason, and an unnamed troll woman, who aggressively asks him who he is, in the process describing herself. Numerous tales in Scandinavian folklore characterise trolls as very strong, but slow and dim-witted, often man-eaters, and as creatures who turn to stone upon contact with sunlight.
Trolls were always described in these legendary stories as dangerous, given to kidnapping people and overrunning their estates, antisocial and quarrelsome creatures who made life difficult for travellers. Perhaps that explains our modern idea of troll behaviour – it goes back 1,100 years!
When the Internet began gaining popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the term used for posting inflammatory or hostile messages was ‘flaming’, but these ‘flamers’ soon started being described as ‘trolls’ instead, and the latter term has completely driven out the former. The troll’s intent is usually to insult, offend or abuse his targets in order to provoke a response for the troll’s own amusement or to score political points. One definition of ‘troll’ speaks of online harassment; another is that of ‘a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families’.
Earlier, the non-Internet-related use of ‘trolling’ occurred in military parlance: there is a 1972 citation from the Vietnam War, in which US Navy pilots spoke of “trolling for MiGs”, meaning using decoys, with the mission of drawing fire away from US planes. This usage has of course been eclipsed by that relating to the Internet, with the Oxford English Dictionary finding its earliest usage in this sense in 1992. Here too ‘trolling’ was a verb, in the phrase “trolling for newbies”, an expression used in alt.folklore.urban (AFU) to refer to questions or topics that had been so repeatedly discussed that only a new user would respond to them earnestly. Such posts would help identify new subscribers. This definition of trolling was relatively benign and meant something much narrower than the contemporary understanding of the term. One of the most famous AFU trollers, David Mikkelson, went on to create the urban folklore website Snopes.com.
From this usage, the noun troll usually referred to an act of trolling – or to the resulting discussion – rather than to the author, though now a troll is always seen as a nasty creature behaving obnoxiously in social media, and ‘to troll’ is only understood to mean ‘to insult, abuse, attack and offend someone on social media through one’s posts’. In Kerala politics, however, the word has been transmuted further, and is used (in Malayalam) not to refer to an anti-social individual but to a humorous meme. “That was a great troll about you!” friends and supporters would tell me gleefully, to my bewilderment, until I realised that words can acquire different meanings in different languages.
There is, in fact, a still older usage of the word ‘troll’, to mean ‘to fish by pulling a line through the water’, usually from a slow-moving boat, as opposed to ‘trawl’, which involves dragging a large net from a much larger boat. In this sense, of course, politicians like myself are always trolling for votes – and that’s what our critics, as trolls, do to us on the Internet too!