Word of the year 2013: troll

I’ve picked ‘troll’ because it has recently changed its meaning. I’m not talking about the word in the sense of goat-bothering, flesh-eating monsters. I’m not even talking about the change it experienced around 20 years ago, when it started to refer to problematic users on internet message boards.

A bit of history: most online forums don’t like it if you’re rude to other users. If you write something attacking another user, referred to as ‘flaming’, you can lose the right to post or even get banned from the forum. This led to a form of harassment where some users would try to make others flame them and get them banned. These users, the trolls, would have their fun by posting things designed to make people angry and seeing the enraged responses. The origin is probably linked to the monster of myth and legend.

But the word has undergone a further metamorphosis in the past year or so. It has been used to describe people who harass others more directly. Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasey and many others have been attacked for their feminist views by Twitter trolls. Others have used ‘trolling’ to describe people posting unpleasant comments on Facebook, ask.fm etc.

This behaviour is more like what would have been referred to as flaming some years ago. So why don’t people use that word? Well, ‘troll’ is more evocative than ‘flamer’. It brings to mind ugly, misshapen creatures, huddled in the dark: many trolls in folklore are turned to stone by sunlight. Trolls hide under bridges the way online trolls hide behind the anonymity of their usernames.

So I like ‘troll’ because it shows how old words can be repurposed, even if they’ve been nearly forgotten. Our language is always changing, even if the changes are only small, and I think that’s rather magical.