Though vegans may disagree, fishing has always seemed to me to be a fairly peaceful and innocent pastime, sitting all day by the water waiting for fish to bite. There has always been a figurative meaning of the verb too, of course, as we can see in the entry in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:
And this meaning of ‘looking for something’ is extended to ‘trying to get something’, in the phrasal verb fish for something:
Almost as soon as people started to spend a large part of their lives online, it seems that other people began to devise ingenious ways of getting hold of their money. And so the catfish was born. A catfish is a type of fish, but in the murky world of online dating, it is someone who pretends to be someone else, perhaps using the picture of a model, in order to ‘catch’ their victim. If we look at the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that this is the second meaning given:
But where does this use of the word come from? According to the American TV documentary (2010) that led to the eponymous American TV series which films real-life cases of catfishing, it originated in the practice of transporting live cod caught in the icy waters of Alaska for sale in China. The cod would become lethargic and their flesh would lose its texture, and so catfish were added to the tank to nibble the cods’ tails and keep them lively. It may be more likely, though, that it refers to the practice in restaurants of passing off the cheap and plentiful catfish as a more expensive fish.
Soon after the noun catfish acquired its new meaning, we started to see the verb ‘to catfish’. According to our corpora showing data from the first decade of the century, this meaning was unknown before the coming of the TV show, with all examples related to fishing:
By 2019, though, the data tells a very different story, with most of the much larger number of examples showing the new meaning:
Catfishing apart, fishing for compliments is something more insecure people have always done, and in the world of social networking, where it now seems to be obligatory to have thousands of ‘friends’, this has led to the phenomenon of ‘sadfishing’, the practice of exaggerating your personal problems in order to generate sympathy. Media reports suggest that sadfishing is yet another threat to the mental health of young people, perhaps playing a role in the increase in online bullying.
Looking at other new terms connected with fishing, what about the homophone phishing? Here the word seems to have been given a new spelling, to distinguish it from good old fishing. Phishing is the practice of tricking people by email or on the Internet, getting them to give away their identity, bank details, etc. The first citation according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1996, at the very dawn of the Internet; the example given is “You could go phishing for passwords (not that I do it or recommend it)”.
Phishing quickly became part of our everyday language, spawning spin-offs like spear phishing, where the ‘fish’ are individually targeted, with emails sent from known or trusted senders in order to make the phishing attempt more convincing and the fish more likely to swim into the net.
Who knows what other new fishing techniques our online lives will spawn?
Mark Temple worked as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America before becoming an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.