Trolling’s Surprising Origins in Fishing

A method once used by mythology experts has turned painfully aggressive.

An illustration of a troll sitting atop typewriter keys
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

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Four hundred years ago, trolls haunted the dark forests of Scandinavia looking for lost humans to club on the head with trees, drag back to the depths of their caves, and eat. Now they haunt the dark forests of social media looking for lost posters to goad with inflammatory comments, drag into the depths of a pointless passionate argument, and enrage for as long as possible. Although these two figures have a lot in common, the term trolling surprisingly has no clear etymological connection to Nordic mythology. Despite compelling and controversial academic arguments to the contrary, such as this one, the modern definition of troll actually comes to us more directly from the world of fishing.

The mythological and marine trolling both have their origin in indiscriminate, casual violence: the Old French hunting term troller, which meant “to wander around looking for something to kill” or “to go hunting for game with no specific purpose.” Soon, this casual hunting style gained a more popular and specific meaning in the world of fishing, which incentivizes a patient and meandering approach. Since the 16th century, trolling has described a process by which one or more baited hooks are drawn slowly through the waters, either by hanging off the end of a slow-moving boat or by a person slowly winding the line in. Keeping the bait moving gives it the appearance of life, making it a much more attractive option for fish to chomp down on. The method has become industry standard, and is used commercially and recreationally.

This sense of moving bait carried the word’s significance into the 21st century, where it was used to describe similar behavior in decoy military operations and, most commonly, on the internet. In the web’s early days in 1990, a Usenet community of folklore enthusiasts called alt.folklore.urban (AFU) adapted the process to identify inexperienced “newbie” posters in the group. AFU veterans began to post intentionally garbled quotes or hackneyed, obvious topics to which only new users would respond in earnest. They called this process “trolling,” and the metaphorical similarity to fishing was strong. Experts gave these dead issues the appearance of life by bringing them up with feigned earnestness. Once the unsuspecting innocents bit, they were hooked; the experts could do with them what they wanted.

As with most things on the internet, this process soon escalated into unpleasantness—the trolling we know today. The method developed on AFU for testing community literacy through affected innocence began to be used more aggressively, not just to distinguish between academic experts and amateurs but to probe and manipulate people’s understanding of life. Trolling expanded from gatekeeping a specific knowledge community to gatekeeping the ability to freely share one’s thoughts online. And although the term originated more specifically in the baiting process of fishery, the mythological overtones of troll—an ugly and bloodthirsty vagabond humanoid, wandering around the wilderness looking to feast on the innocent—gave the term a new level of semantic significance. For our Monday puzzle, I wanted a simple clue that captured both strains of trollitude, leaving us with: “Attempt to bait into unpleasant conflict.”

Play the rest of Tuesday’s crossword, and keep up with the week’s puzzles.