Etymologists do not only ponder the origin of words like god, man, and wife, searching for how combinations of ordinary sounds could yield such important meanings. (Meditation on questions of this type has not always been safe. People have been burned at the stake for noticing that god is an anagram of dog. Thank heavens, in our part of the world, thought and speech are now free and politically correct blasphemy is encouraged.) Someone who studies the rise of words is equally interested in their later history, that is, in the changes of their pronunciation and meaning. We know rap “quick blow,” and rap “a type of popular music” does not surprise us, but what about rap “talk, discussion” and rap “criminal charge” (as in rap list and take/beat the rap)? It is hard to imagine those raps developing from rap-rap-rap. Are we not dealing with homonyms? Has wrap influenced rap “informal discussion” (something to be wrapped up quickly) and isn’t rap “crime” a guest from the underworld, a word unrelated to blows?
Such questions constantly occupy language historians, and they have recently been brought to my attention, when I ran into the meaning of the word troll “(send) an e-mail message or posting on the Internet intended to provoke a response from the reader by containing errors.” Its origin, as the second edition of the Oxford American Dictionary informs us, is unknown, but we are invited to compare it with Old French troller “wander here and there in search of the game” and Middle High German trollen “stroll.” Etymological dictionaries love to urge their users to “compare” words, which is code for “similar forms exist in other languages, but we do not know what their similarity means; probably nothing.” In this case it would be wise to abstain from comparisons, for who are the computer wizzes or whizzes, so knowledgeable about Old French and Middle High German that they draw upon those languages when in need of a new slang term? The inventor of the term may be snickering contentedly, while reading this blog. She knows that her sweetheart, whom first she and then everybody else began to call a troll, because he is a smart clumsy womanizer, has been fond of sending provocative messages since an early age. He is now so famous that the whole world refers to his emails as trolls, without remembering how the nickname came about. We are unable to guess the truth, for she will never reveal the grim secret, namely, that her beloved husband who has become so famous (they are now married) and the father of their darling son Trollekin has not studied either Old French or Middle High German. In college he failed both beginning German and French and speaks even his native English in broken sentences, his huge size, charm, and smartness notwithstanding. The verb troll was derived from the noun.
All this is most interesting, but let us turn to the origin of troll “mythological being.” The history of that word is also unknown, except that in the modern European languages it is a borrowing from Scandinavian. However, trolls seem to have arisen more to the south. The Germanic languages are full of words sounding like troll, trull, trall, and trill (sometimes, especially in Dutch, even long vowels occur between tr and ll). As usual in such cases, one cannot be sure that all of them are related. The English verb troll has been recorded in various senses: “move about; roll; sing in full round voice” and “angle (for pike) with a running line.” In the first three, the idea of rotating is unmistakable. Either because of their size or as the result of some superstition, several fish are called troll in Scandinavia. What if the English gave the same name to the pike and derived the corresponding verb from this name? This hypothesis is approximately as persuasive as the one about Troll, the computer scientist. In etymology, everything is possible (invited), but few things are probable (chosen).
The most ancient trolls must have been treated on a par with elves, dwarves, and even the gods. People thought of them as invisible forces (“spirits”) causing diseases and catastrophes. Some words designating those supernatural beings did not even exist in the singular, and their gender was neuter. The thought of our distant ancestors was directed to groups rather than individuals. There was a multitude of gods (neuter plural; the masculine singular appeared in Germanic only after its speakers’ conversion to Christianity), and a multitude of men (man seems to have been abstracted from ga-man “the votaries of the god Mannus,” the legendary progenitor of the human race). Wife goes back to a noun in the neuter (German Weib “woman” is still neuter; it, too, must have meant a certain group of people, rather than a single female). In Old Icelandic, troll was, predictably, a neuter noun. Of the suggestions known to me, the one that traces troll to a sound imitative complex seems to be the most convincing. Somebody somewhere would make a loud noise, and the victim would bend over with lumbago or become raving mad. Some trolls were thought of as small (otherwise why are they invisible?), others as huge (otherwise whence the noise?); modern folklore presents them in all sizes. Sound imitative complexes are such loose formations that vowels vary freely in them: trall, trull, troll, and trill. Troll should denote something bigger that trill, but the connection between the type of vowel and the size of the object is not stable.
Tr-words alternate with their twins beginning with dr-. Engl. droll is from French, but the French took it over from Dutch. A Dutch noun related to it designated a jester, a buffoon, a funny (“droll”) little fellow. Norwegian dialectal Drolen means “Devil.” The Vandals called the Goths troulous (this word has come down to us in Greek transliteration), that is, trolls. If the original trolls were like our bogeys, it is easy to understand the origin of that ancient “ethnic slur” and of Drolen. It also stops being a puzzle why German dialectal Trulle and several other similar Germanic words are no more than vague terms of abuse. When applied to women, they, naturally, came to mean “strumpet, whore.” Engl. trull “whore” looks like a borrowing from German. Despite the difference in the root vowels, Engl. trollop must be trull, with the suffix -op added. Words like wallop and lollop are few in Standard English, but dozens of them have been recorded in dialects. (However, the last name Trollope, or Trollop, has no opprobrious connotations: it is derived from troll-hope, that is, “troll valley”; hope “valley; bay” is a well-known north-country word.)
Trolls were evil conjurers (Old Icelandic trylla and its Middle High German cognate meant “enchant”). They bereaved people of reason, who looked ridiculous, “droll.” Someone who invented the computer slang term troll probably knew that trolls make one crazy (that is, if my initial conjecture is found untenable). Yet even this cloud has a silver lining. Every now and then trolls need help from humans and, if treated kindly, they become people’s friends. Hence the Icelandic saying “loyal as a troll.” Domesticate a monster and enjoy his service for a twelvemonth and beyond. A Happy New Year!
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”