The word troll first came into use in 1610. Norwegians, in their Old Norse mythology, described ugly dwarfs or giants as trolls, usually up to no good.
The word was adapted for fishing use in describing pulling a lure or baited hook in the water while the boat is moving. The word was picked up on the Internet in the early 1980s and has steadily progressed since then to the devious practice of attacking a person or point of view with an anonymous text.
This resulted in all the people who heretofore had kept their opinions to themselves giving vent to their negative feelings in public without anybody knowing who the culprit was. It also allowed people to include obscenities, personal attacks, lies, gross misrepresentation and other such niceties without public attribution. The coward had come into his own.
Of course, anonymous attacks are nothing new. When I first started reviewing theater productions and writing an opinion column, there would be signed letters to the editor disagreeing with my reactions. Most of the theater disagreements had to do with people who questioned whether I had been in the theater the same night as they because surely I had not understood the quality of the production or the ability of the actors. Nearly all the people who signed their names politely implied that it would be better if the paper hired someone with more intelligence and savvy.
But when I began to write about political and moral matters, the tone became somewhat scary. The letters were addressed to me personally at the paper and the senders became anonymous. The first one still stands out in my mind. The writer stated that as soon as the real Americans took over the country, I was going to be strung up and burned to death.
I stared at it for a few minutes and then rushed to the office of the late Lawrence K. Miller, who was serving as editor of his family's newspaper. I handed him the letter and stood there while he read it impassively.
"What should I do?" I asked. "Shall I bring it to the police?"
"Just ignore it," he answered.
"But this guy sounds serious," I said. I said "guy" because there were so many obscenities in the jumble of threats that in those days it would never occur to me that a woman could be part of this indignity.
Mr. Miller reached down and pulled open the bottom right hand drawer of his desk. It was crammed with what were obviously letters of various sorts.
"There are probably some letters in there from the same guy who wrote you," he said. "You probably pass him every day in the street. It's nothing to worry about."
He had obviously been threatened for years and it rolled off his back. So I let it roll off mine.
Now we come to the present with the Internet. When our children were visiting us a few years ago, I commented that nobody had attacked me in letters to the editor for years. They looked at me in astonishment. I looked back, astonished at their astonishment.
"What are you talking about?" our younger daughter asked.
"No letters," I said.
"You have dozens of comments after every column," she answered. "Don't you look at the comments?"
I admitted that I knew nothing about them. They took me to the computer and showed me. There were all kinds of comments, all of them detailing how stupid I was. All of them unsigned except for pseudo-clever pseudonyms.
"A lot of them are attacking someone named Alan Chartock," one noted.
"Who's he," someone asked.
I explained in detail. We inquired at The Eagle and they said Chartock requested there be no comments allowed on his pieces, which I thought was weird because he writes some pretty good stuff.
But here's the lagniappe.
Ariana Huffington has decreed that next month the Huffington Post will insist that trolls must give their real name when submitting a comment.
"Freedom of expression," she said, "is given to people who stand up for what they're saying and not hiding behind anonymity. I think trolls have become more and more aggressive and uglier."
Good for her and I hope other publishers follow suit. By the way, someday I'll tell you my true name and will you ever be surprised.
Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.