A recent classroom experience left me with the exhilarating feeling of having found a new word usage, barely a few years old, that has become a fixture in how we approach the world.

This semester I’ve been teaching a course called “Impostors” that focuses on actors, spies, forgers, translators, plagiarizers, and other transgressors assuming someone else’s identity for commercial, political, psychological, artistic, or other purposes. Students read Plato, Diderot, Cervantes, and Freud, watch movies like Woody Allen’s Zelig and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, and read classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.

The last unit of the course is devoted to impostors on the Internet, specifically on social media. How is the self reconfigured online? I talked about how technology—from techno, derived from the Greek for art as well as skill—often results in some type of disembodiment. I asked students to think of TV, where we see people who aren’t physically near us. Télé + vision means sending images and sound over distance. We talked of radio, literature, and the telephone, specifically about how, when the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, among others, people had the impression they were talking with ghosts.

I  had asked the students to watch Catfish, a documentary (this gets rather meta, but some have called the film a faux documentary) about a gullible New York photographer, Nev Schulman, who falls in love on Facebook with a beautiful Michigan woman who has posed as someone she is not. I mentioned how the documentary was a sensation when it opened in 2010 and how it was turned into an MTV show, hosted by Schulman, that brings together couples who’ve interacted solely online. I said that before 2010, no one used catfishing to describe an online hoax (at least, not as far as I can find), but that in in the years since I had noticed young people using the word all the time. This obviously doesn’t mean that before the movie, online hoaxes didn’t exist. I listed several famous ones, including the tragic suicide, in 2006, of 13-year-old Megan Meier, after exchanging correspondence with an invented boyfriend called Josh, who was allegedly her former friend’s mother.

In what way should we explain the word’s grip on the popular imagination? How did it come to be the word everyone uses to describe this particular phenomenon?

One of my students responded that once a phenomenon materializes in people’s minds, all it needs is a catchy word to anchor itself, and catfishing is that word. Another added that words like this one don’t need to “reveal” themselves etymologically; for them to become current, it is enough for pop culture to start using them.

An epiphany took place in class when, to confirm what these students had argued, I asked for the definition of catfish from the Oxford English Dictionary online. Two came up, and we read them out loud. First: “A freshwater or marine fish with whiskerlike barbels around the mouth, typically bottom-dwelling.” Second: “lure [someone] into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.” The first definition, I said, showcases a type of word whose meaning is attached to semblance: the fish’s whiskerlike barbels make it indeed look like a cat. The second is a case of what, for the purposes of this course and calling attention to the Saussurean distinction between signs, signified, and signifiers, I called “disembodied lexicon.” That is, there is absolutely no connection between what a catfish does in the water, I said, and an online hoax; unless, that is, that connection is metaphorical, or perhaps vaguely referential.

But toward the end of Catfish, the husband of the film’s online impostor delivers what appears to be an aside. He is talking about his wife’s conniving qualities, although he sees them from a positive perspective. Taking a detour, he talks of an effort—and I’m transcribing from what I hear on the screen—“to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China, by which time its flesh arrives all mush and tasteless. … ” The husband says that a fisherman hence devised the idea of throwing catfish into the cod tank, “so the catfish would keep the cod agile.” He concludes his comment by saying that “there are those people who are catfish, and they keep you on your toes, they keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. … ” In other words, it is the catfish, in his view, that make life interesting for the rest of us.

This is important because catfishing, from this perspective, doesn’t have a negative connotation, although the documentary as a whole certainly paints the phenomenon in a bad light.

At any rate, it is this casual reference to a nonscientific aspect of catfish that ended up catching the attention of the documentary filmmakers—and of the public in general. That attention metamorphosed into a term the OED incorporated into its pages, making it official. Just as gold existed as a chemical element in the universe before it was called gold, online hoaxing was common before 2010. But now we know how to refer to it.

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