Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Has the word “troll” changed its meaning (again)?

In recent discussions, newspapers seem to have decided that a “troll” is an internet bully. It used to mean something else.

Tue, Jul 30, 2013, 22:37


Well, it’s not quite correct to suggest the word “changed” its meaning when it was appropriated by observers of the internet. There was never any confusion as to its mythological sense. A troll is — and always will be — a terrifying beast that dwells in northern climes. But, according to Dr Wikipedia, the word began to take on fresh connotations as long ago as the 1980s. Pedants will not have found the recent controversy concerning online abuse easy on their poor hearts. Readers of my piece on Mary Beard’s troubles yesterday will note that I avoided using the word. Why would I? It does not accurately describe any of the participants.

Here’s the thing. A “troll” is (or was) somebody who — on a comment board or any other form of digital conversation — adopts an obtuse position just to enrage other commentators. You know the sort of thing. People are happily discussing Stanley Kubrick on IMDb boards (my story takes place in the 1860s, you understand) and some anonymous oik comes along to suggest that Kubrick can’t hold a candle to Brett Ratner. Having kicked everybody into a fury he (rarely she, I fear) retires into the shadows. It’s quite a nice term for these sorts of largely harmless idiots. One imagines them lurking expectantly beneath bridges waiting for the next chattering victims. Pounce! “g k rowling is a illiterate idioyt who isnt fit to kiss steph meyers’ toes” Retire. Pounce! “Christopher nowlan can suck my ass.” Retire! And so on.

YouTube Preview Image

Anyway, the point is that, over the past few years, the word has increasingly been used to describe internet bullies such as those who tweeted filth in the direction of Professor Beard. Of course, trolls can be bullies. Quite often, when trolling, they indulge in personal rudeness to the other participants in the conversation. But the word doesn’t (or didn’t) mean bully. The Irish Times seems to be sticking largely to the old meaning. Drop a search on “troll” into the Guardian’s website, however, and you will come across dozens of articles using the word to mean internet bully. Beneath almost all of these articles, you will find some furious commentator pointing out the error.

Oh well. At some point, we (by which I mean people other than me) have to accept that, battered by usage, the meaning, status or spelling of a word has shifted. I may be forced eventually to accept — when Hades sinks to absolute zero, perhaps — that the word “craic” is now so spelled in English. Even I am not boring enough to argue that the 21st century began in 2001 (though technically speaking it did). And so forth.

It is probably pointless to whine about this one any longer. The people who run the dictionaries are already rewriting their entries.