The Grammarphobia Blog

Fishing for votes

Q: Is it “trolling” or “trawling” for votes?

A: My vote goes for “trawl,” though it’s understandable that someone might also use “troll” in the sense of fishing for votes.

The verbs “trawl” and “troll” began as separate terms, but you might say that their lines got tangled a few hundred years ago.

The origins of “trawl” are uncertain, but it’s similar to a Middle Dutch word, traghelen (to drag). It originally meant to fish by dragging the edge of a net along the sea bottom.

The English verb is derived from the noun “trawl,” meaning a drag net, which perhaps comes from the Middle Dutch traghel and ultimately the Latin tragula, which have the same meaning as the English term.

The noun entered English in the late 1400s and the verb in the mid-1500s.

“Troll” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a word or series of words of uncertain origin, and of which all the senses do not go closely together.”

The OED says it’s generally from an Old French hunting term meaning “to quest, to go in quest of game, without purpose.”

The French usage may (or may not) be related to the German trollen (to roll), but the English word, which came along in the late 1300s, has senses that aren’t found in modern French or German.

“Troll” first meant to move or walk about, or to go to and fro, to saunter or ramble. It had many other meanings over the centuries, including to roll, whirl, or spin, and even to sing.

“Troll” got entangled with “trawl” in the early 17th century when people began to use it in the sense of to fish with a running line, using either (1) a spinning bait or (2) a dead bait played in a sink-and-draw motion.

Meanwhile, in the US and Scotland “troll” came to mean “to trail a baited line behind a boat,” a usage that the OED says may have come about “through association with trail or trawl.”

Both “trawl” and “troll” have undergone changes in figurative use, which is where your question about vote-getting comes in. And the preferred word here would seem to be “trawl,” because it implies casting a figurative net rather than luring with bait.

The OED says a figurative meaning of “trawl” (often used with “for”) is “to engage in an exhaustive or extensive (sometimes indiscriminate) search for something; spec. to search for a suitable candidate by sifting through a large number.”

The first published reference cited for this figurative usage is from 1980. Here are a couple of illustrative examples:

From P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death (1986): “Haven’t you seen those dreadful old men, trawling for a committee, angling for a royal commission.”

From a 1990 issue of Good Housekeeping: “Clare Selerie-Grey, Editor of Woman’s Hour takes a good look at the day’s papers, trawling for hot items.”

“Troll,” meanwhile, has its own figurative meaning: to entice by means of a bait or lure, which dates back to 1565, several decades before the OED‘s first citation for the term’s use in its fishing sense.

In modern times it’s taken on negative connotations in computing slang, where it means “to post a deliberately erroneous or antagonistic message on a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.”

The OED‘s first citation for this computer usage is from 1992.

In this sense, the noun “troll” means someone who posts such messages, a usage the OED says is probably influenced by another, unrelated “troll,” the gremlin-like creature from Scandinavian mythology.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.