Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Cave monster to e-monster

The English language has an ogre-like appetite for new words. It is not particularly discriminating, unlike French, which prefers to remain svelte and pure. If a new term creates sufficient buzz in the English chatter-sphere it will probably finish up in the Oxford English Dictionary. This organic approach is not limited to ‘English’ words. French words like aperitif, au pair, cuisine, cul-de-sac, gamine, protégé, risqué and svelte, to name only a few, have been ‘stolen’ or ‘borrowed’ by the les Rosbifs.

Words can also radically transform themselves.  The French word gai crossed the English channel in the 13th century and became gay and meant light-hearted or joyous and then became a synonym for happy. It acquired connotations of immorality in the 17th century. A gay woman was a prostitute, a gay man was a womanizer, and a gay house was a brothel. In America by 1900 the expression gay cat referred to a homeless vagabond, especially a younger man travelling with an older one. By 1935, it was used in prison slang for a homosexual boy and by 1951 it was shortened to simply gay and referred to homosexuals.

So how and by whom are these semantic shifts monitored? I am told by a reliable source that the Oxford English Dictionary employs a regiment of bearded, bespectacled gentlemen in three-piece tweed suits who travel the world with a chatter-meter attached to the roof of their Mini Coopers, the original models, not the new Lego-type. These chatter-meters are designed to trawl not just the real world, but also the cyber world, where the chatter of the masses grows louder daily. In recent years these learned professors have had to deal with a host of new terms and re-definitions as humans began to google, tweet, spam, surf, embed, chat, generate, share, upload, download, friend and also unfriend.

One word that has recently registered in the red on the chatter-meter is the cyber activity known as trolling, carried out by trolls. This monster, best known as an inhabitant of damp dark caves of northern Europe, is undergoing a semantic shift of monstrous proportions. It has migrated and now lives freely among us and also in the dark corners of cyberspace.

In the 70s a troll was a funny little plastic figurine with a huge mop of wildly-coloured hair. They were collectible. They had pudgy baby-like bodies, big round eyes and wrinkled faces. But the hair was the thing; long spikes of yellow, green, pink and blue hair that kids used to style and comb incessantly. (Certain troll aficionados undoubtedly went on to become punks and hairdressers).

Then came the blockbuster troll.  This troll is gigantic, has greenish skin, very bad teeth, a small head and a great big club to smash the heads of Frodo B and Harry P. Thankfully Frodo and Harry and friends were able to kill these monstrous creature with a wand and some fine archery.

These trolls owe their ancestry to ancient Norse and Scandinavian folklore. Trolls were ‘hidden folk’ or ‘nature beings’ living outside respectable Norwegian society. They had supernatural powers. Some ate human flesh. These ancient trolls came in all sizes from small human to mountain size. Some had more than one head. They were ugly, mean and stubborn, often slow-thinking and with small, beady eyes, lots of hair and large noses. They were generally considered dangerous to humans, well-illustrated in the Norwegian creature feature film The Troll Hunter (we’re talking BIG trolls here). After Christianity established itself in the 11th century in the Norse lands the troll also developed a hatred of church-bells and the smell of Christians. They were the monsters of the pagan past in a time of puritanical Christianity.

Trollvolution (left to right): cute collectible troll, ancient hairy troll, Hollywood blockbuster troll and the modern evil troll. Illustrations by Cédric Marendaz.

A much loved piece of classical music features trolls. Edvard Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King based on Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt refers to no ordinary mountain king, but a troll king. As the music builds up to its final climax the young hero Peer Gynt is surrounded by trolls who want to kill him, cut off his fingers, bite his body, roast him and make soup out of his bones.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the troll has morphed in meaning and appearance. I am sorry to say they now look just like you. They have left the cave disguised as your next door neighbour and now inhabit the lawless lands of the internet. The crossover from off-line (the real world) to on-line was recorded in the Oxford English dictionary in the mid 1990s:

a person who submits a deliberately provocative online posting:

a deliberately provocative posting intended to start arguments and incite people.

The behaviour of the first generation cyber trolls seemed to relate more to the verb to troll - to catch fish by pulling a line with bait on it through the water behind a boat. Trolls in the early days (the 1990s) were provocateurs who disrupted online chats and media comment sections with often outrageous or controversial comments. Was it disruptive behaviour? Yes. But malicious, evil and monstrous? No. A troll could be entertaining, especially if their barbed comments unknowingly hooked others and caused disruption and confusion.

According to some, trolling was a noble activity, carried out by internet veterans, who would make simple and innocent jokes on unsuspecting online newcomers. Trolling was like making prank phone calls, like for example the 10 hour long Troll Song. The objective was to be clever and creative and get a reaction out of your unsuspecting victim. A colleague told me recently: ‘Sometimes chats and comment sections are filled with so much self-congratulatory bullshit that you are tempted to go online and troll a wake-up call.’

But that was the passé 90s. There is now a second generation cyber troll that is only a few years old.  The fishing line and hooks are packed away and have been replaced by bone-crunching evil.  Today’s troll is someone who uses their anonymity on the internet to purposely spread hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny. Trolling in the popular press is now interchangeable with cyberbullying which is becoming a growing cause of self-inflicted pain and suicide among young people.  Once bullying was confined to school. Now the home is no longer a safe place. You can be attacked by trolls 24/7 even in the privacy of your own bedroom.

In August this year the British Prime Minister David Cameron was urged to take action against a social network site called after five British teenagers had killed themselves after allegedly suffering abuse on the website. One victim, Hannah Smith hung herself after anonymous trolls urged her to 'drink bleach', 'get cancer' and 'go die'.  Read the The Guardian newspaper report here. Her sister was then abused online. A Facebook page set up to offer tributes to the dead girl was then targeted by trolls.

The internet has become a refuge for anonymous cyber monsters, who are also our colleagues, relatives or in one case the 17 year old son of close friends who when confronted said it was ‘just a game’. You can read about it here: The day I confronted my troll.

Studies of trolls reveal the majority are young men often with troubled backgrounds.  They are motivated by the anonymity of the internet and the lack of consequence of their actions. Researchers speak of disinhibition where people feel free of social norms because they're communicating via a computer rather than face to face - BBC – finding a modern evil troll.

Trolls are also congregating in networks and co-ordinating attacks. This is explored in the HBO series The Newsroom when a TV researcher tries to troll his way into an exclusive troll online club.

Governments like the UK are scrambling to legislate against trolls, and pressuring social media and networks to be more responsive to abuse.  Troll hunters are back in demand after a 500 year lay-off. Internet users are advised to report abuse and encouraged not to feed the trolls (ignore the abuse). Meanwhile the trolls run relatively free. It will take more than a magic wand and a semantic shift to push them back into their caves.




Buzz– excitement, the sound of many people talking about something

chatter-sphere informal – the world of communication

tweed suits – suits made of rough wool traditionally work by the British upper class.

trawl– to search through a large amount of information

chatter-meter informal – a device that records the amount of talk

damp - wet

mop– lost of thick often untidy hair

pudgy – slightly fat

wrinkly- having lines in your skin which form as you get older

wand - stick used for magic

archery– the art of shooting arrows with a bow

mean – likely to be angry and violent

stubborn– determined not to change your opinion or attitude

beady– small round and bright

to morph– change

lawless – where laws do not exist

prank– a trick that is played on someone as a joke

a wake-up call – an event that makes people face reality

bleach- a poisonous chemical that is used to make something become white or pale

scrambling - trying to achieve something with difficulty, or in a hurry, without much control

lay-off- a period of time when somebody is not working

Cédric Marendaz is a Geneva artist, illustrator and graphic artist.

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