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Catfishing, blackfishing, sadfishing: the spread of a new libfix

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Written by Stan Carey

A recent news story said young people were being accused of ‘sadfishing’. The word was immediately submitted to Macmillan’s Open Dictionary, which defines it as ‘the practice of exaggerating your problems in order to gain attention, especially on social media’. The sad part is self-evident, but where does the fishing come from?

Sadfishing draws on the use of fish as a verb meaning ‘try to make someone tell you something, without asking them directly’. This usage, which dates to the 16th century, often appears in contexts like fish for information or fish for compliments. But sadfishing is also a product of a modern pattern of x-fishing words that began with catfishing about a decade ago.

Catfishing is ‘tricking someone into having an online relationship by adopting a fake identity’. As the dictionary’s Word story reveals, it comes from a 2010 documentary film named Catfish. The word quickly became popular online – it’s still making headlines – and soon gave rise to other -fishing terms. Wordspy records the similar kittenfishing from 2016, and hatfishing, where someone wears a hat in online-dating photos to hide baldness, for example.

Blackfishing is a prominent recent coinage, added to the Open Dictionary in late 2018. It refers to a controversial practice, seen especially on Instagram, involving ‘someone who is pretending to be black’. There is also a synonym for blackfishing with the n-word as its stem.

In the title of this post I refer to -fishing as a libfix: this is Arnold Zwicky’s term for a certain type of combining form – a bit like an affix, but narrower in meaning and relatively liberated. This morphological freedom may be seen in an article at Vice by Janae Price, which uses fish and fishing by themselves. Once the type of x-fishing behaviour is clear in the context, the x is sometimes dropped.

Fishing is proving to be a productive libfix. Urban Dictionary, inevitably, has an entry for whitefishing, and also offers fatfishing. A search on Twitter shows yellow fishing, mixed fishing, Latina/Latino fishing, latinx fishing, toothfishing and nosefishing, among other spin-offs. Formed by analogy with their forerunners, they all retain the idea of hiding or feigning one’s ethnicity or physical appearance. Most, for now, are one-off or low-frequency neologisms.

Phish and phishing are worth noting in passing, because they sound the same as fish and fishing and also involve online deception, in this case ‘the practice of trying to trick someone into giving their secret bank information by sending them an email that looks as if it comes from their bank and that asks them to give their account number or password’. A related activity is spear-phishing, where the fraudulent emails are sent to a targeted (not a random) group of people.

Have you seen other forms of -fishing online? Let me know in a comment or on Twitter.

About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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