Verbal Energy

Trolling – or trawling? – for eggcorns

The effort to keep two fishing terms straight takes the Monitor's language columnist to a database that tracks 'slips of the ear.'

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Just the other day, I was trolling for ideas for a project I'm working on ... or was it trawling? The mental image was one of "fishing around." But since I have only limited experience in fishing for actual fish instead of, say, keys at the bottom of my bag, I wanted to be sure of my metaphor.

A website called "The Fisherman's Lodge – an Ontario Resource" explains:

"Simply put, trolling is pulling bait or a lure behind a boat as it moves slowly through the water.... The basic difference between these two similar terms is that trawling involves a net and is typically done for commercial fishing purposes, while trolling involves a rod, reel, and a bait or lure," and is typically done by recreational fishermen.

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In this light it was clear what I was doing was trolling.

But I was not alone in feeling a need to check. Google even asked whether I wanted to know the difference between troll and troll.

Actually, those five letters pack a good many meanings in them. There's the troll of Norwegian folklore ("The Three Billy Goats Gruff"), who lives under a bridge and eats up anyone who tries to cross it. (A BBC production of the story in 2008 imagined him as a "tragic, cruelly maligned victim," The Daily Telegraph reported. Go figure.)

Today a troll is someone who deliberately sends a rude or annoying message to a discussion group on the Internet. Trolls are also those who acquire patents, copyrights, and trademarks and don't produce anything but rather make their money by suing others for infringement.

Troll as a verb, which comes from French, has a number of meanings, generally rooted in the idea of rolling around, moving about in search of whatever turns up. There's a musical sense of troll: to sing the parts of a piece of music such as a round, the idea being that the music rolls through various sections of the choir.

Troll versus trawl pops up on Chris Waigl's Eggcorn Database. Eggcorns are similar to but distinct from malapropisms. Once described as a "slip of the ear," an eggcorn is the written expression of a plausible mishearing of a standard term.

"For all intents and purposes," for example, is a set phrase – inherently redundant, perhaps, but it's the idiom. It gets misheard, though, as "for all intensive purposes," and sometimes appears that way in print. That's an eggcorn. So is "manner from heaven," which makes sense if you've heard the phrase but not seen it written – especially if you live in a place where final r's are not pronounced.

Eggcorn itself is an eggcorn. To quote from the database: "Erroneous as it may be, the substitution [for acorn] involved more than just ignorance: an acorn is more or less shaped like an egg; and it is a seed, just like grains of corn. So if you don't know how acorn is spelled, egg corn actually makes sense."

Two fishing terms with very similar pronunciations, both used metaphorically, make for a lot of eggcorn potential.

A forum on the Eggcorn Database includes this on trolling versus trawling: "To 'troll' through an archive would mean to glide through it and see what catches your interest, while to 'trawl' it would mean to read everything you come across. I think 'troll' makes more sense with the intended meaning."

Now excuse me, but I've got to go back to trolling for ideas for my project.

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