On the metaphor of sock puppets

Posted by on September 18, 2012

Last week’s Open Dictionary word of the week was sock puppetry, defined by a reader as the act of “writing very flattering reviews of one’s own book on sites such as Amazon, but using a different name…”. It’s in the news at the moment because some popular authors were found to have used the tactic or were accused of doing so; see the Guardian for more on this story.

Sock puppetry is not limited to book reviewing – it can refer more broadly to the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way. It also happens on Wikipedia, in discussion forums, and on blogs. Wikipedia itself has a list of notable examples of politicians, writers and businesspeople who have used sock puppets.

This repurposing of sock puppet (also sock-puppet or sockpuppet) has obvious appeal. The term conjures up pleasing images of colourful toys for children. As Laine wrote:

“The easiest new concepts to grasp are perhaps so easy because they make use of words that are as physical and familiar as a shell, or a mouse, or a sock, or a familiar gesture.”

Puppet is a later form of the older word poppet, which we now use mainly as a term of endearment (and as a brand name for a kind of confectionery). Ultimately it comes from Latin pupa, meaning girl or doll. Puppet developed its metaphorical sense – someone controlled by a more powerful person or group – as far back as the 1540s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap.

In political affairs there are puppet leaders of puppet administrations (or puppet regimes) in puppet states, whose autonomy is limited because their actions are controlled or directed, like pawns, by other people. A puppet master, once a neutral term for someone who literally uses puppets such as Punch and Judy, now also indicates an underhand – pardon the pun – manipulator of other humans in a world of disquieting schemes. A bit like those Amazon reviews.

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Comments (10)
  • Stan:
    Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?

    Posted by marc1940@verizon.net on 18th September, 2012
  • Marc: It certainly should, but it needn’t (and shouldn’t) include such deplorable practices as sockpuppetry.

    Posted by Stan on 18th September, 2012
  • this is a test

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 19th September, 2012
  • Obey your master… master!

    At first I was upset that such an innocent thing as “sock puppetry” had been co-opted to mean skeezy authors reviewing themselves, but then I remembered early Metallica. And it all made sense.

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 21st September, 2012
  • Joe: I was unsure about the usage too when I first noticed it, but it is memorable, and apt in a way. Master of Puppets hadn’t occurred to me – I was never much of a metaller!
    And I like that word skeezy; hadn’t heard it in ages.

    Posted by Stan on 24th September, 2012
  • I think an important point to make is that, as puppets, sock puppets tend to be rather crude, unconvincing examples. I think this has a bearing on the online use of the term.

    Thus, people who make use of sock puppet accounts are not accused of being devious, machiavellian puppet masters; but of creating a new identity that doesn’t fool anybody.

    Posted by Chris Hunt on 24th September, 2012
  • Puppy isn’t just a similar word, it actually is also from pupa, and originally meant a small dog rather than a young one (which was whelp). Pupa, borrowed straight from Latin, means the second stage of an insect’s life, the one from which the adult stage hatches.

    From Latin pupilla, the diminutive of pupa, we get pupil in both senses: the ‘student’ meaning from the earlier ‘orphan, ward’, and the black spot in the eye, from the idea of something very precious (as in the English equivalent, now usually used metaphorically, apple of my eye).

    Posted by John Cowan on 24th September, 2012
  • Chris: An interesting point, but the sock puppets that were recently exposed in crime-writing circles had gone unnoticed or unchallenged for months or years. And those that have been rumbled to date are presumably outnumbered by those still active.

    John: Thanks. Pupa was familiar to me from biology, but I never made the connection to pupil.

    Posted by Stan on 24th September, 2012
  • A sock puppet is just barely a disguise of the hand of the person “mastering” it. This is part of what makes sock puppets funny. The ease with which, online, one can take on another name (put a sock on one’s hand) and speak in praise of one’s own work, and the lack of skill or art involved, when compared with operating a marionette, for example–no matter how effective–are elements of the meaning of sock puppetry. Puppet masters at least control other beings for their own ends; the sock puppet artist is one person tooting his own horn. Kind of pathetic and ridiculous.

    Posted by Jean Callahan on 3rd October, 2012
  • Jean: Yes, they’re certainly more crude and stereotypically more clumsy than marionettes. I don’t know if this had anything to do with how the metaphor arose, but we can draw what parallels we wish. Physical sock puppets may be poor disguises, but the figurative online ones have sometimes been disturbingly successful.

    Posted by Stan on 4th October, 2012
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