My book Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World is about the stories behind new words. I’ve been an etymology addict since I was a teenager, and especially love unpicking technological words. It’s a great reminder of how messily human the stories behind even our sleekest creations are – not to mention delightful curiosities in their own right.
Although the archetypical emblem of an online troll is of a grinning bogeyman, the word can be traced back to the Old French verb troller, meaning to wander around while hunting. “Trolling” entered English around 1600 as a description of fishing by trailing bait around a body of water, and it was this idea of baiting the unwitting that led to the idea of online “trolling”, where experienced net users would simulate naivety in order ensnare the naive. The noun “troll”, meanwhile, does refer to a wide class of monstrous Nordic creatures: a sense that has dovetailed neatly with the increasingly viciously art of trolling.
Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a shortening of the Ancient Greek term mimeme (“an imitated thing”). He designed his new word to sound like “gene”, signifying a unit of cultural transmission. Little did he know that his term would become one of the most iconic of online phenomena, embodying the capacity of the internet to itself act as a kind of gene-pool for thoughts and beliefs – and for infectious, endlessly ingenious slices of time-wasting.
The most enduring gift of British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus may prove to be a digital one: the term “spam”. The key episode, first broadcast in 1970, featured a sketch called “SPAM”: the brand name used since 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation as a contraction of the phrase spiced ham. Set in a cafe where almost every single item on the menu featured spam, the sketch culminated in a chorus of Viking warriors drowning everyone else’s voices out by chanting the word “spam”. A satirical indictment of British culinary monotony, it took on a second life during the early 1980s, when those who wished to derail early online discussions copied out the same words repeatedly in order to clog up a debate. Inspired by Python, the word spam proved a popular way of doing this. “Spamming” came to describe any process of drowning out “real” content – and the rest is repetitive history.
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