Like children, some words can be very, very naughty. I don’t mean that they’re rude in themselves, no. Naughty words are those that are tricky and slippery and given to occasional changes of meaning.
Take the word ‘trolling’ for instance. Last night I watched a deeply disturbing documentary about people who (for reasons best known to themselves) post vile messages and disgusting pictures on tribute websites and Facebook pages dedicated to dead children. This, apparently, is known as ‘trolling’. According to the one ‘troll’ who was actually lured out to be interviewed for the documentary they do this because they object to the fact that people who never knew the deceased post messages of support on these sites. Trolls find this offensive it seems. They also like to provoke controversy and reaction. Great.
Firstly, as someone who has experienced bereavement I can state categorically that a kind word from a complete stranger who didn’t know my loved one was always very welcome. Secondly, there are other ways of provoking reactions. Just off the top of my head, dropping your trousers in front of the Prime Minister would provoke, I imagine, a most satisfyingly extreme and possibly violent reaction.
But I’m not here to talk about Internet trolls per se. No, it’s the word ‘troll’ that interests me because it is one of those slippery little devils that occasionally changes its meaning.
Troll used to mean and means different things in different places. In Scandinavia it was a mythical being generally perceived as something rather dirty and malign. Trolls were dangerous to human beings who tried not to fall foul of them by avoiding lakes, mountains and forests known to be ‘owned’ by trolls. In old French the word ‘troller’ was a hunting term used by those stalking deer and wild pigs.
Possibly from this word ‘troller’ there developed an English word ‘trolling’ which was adopted into the gay patois of post war London. This patois, called polari, was developed so that gay people could talk to each other without ‘outsiders’ knowing what they were saying. Homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until 1967 and so this kind of discretion was essential.
Back before Noah was born, when I was a teenager, I moved in a London theatrical scene that was still dominated by middle aged gay men who had suffered under the harsh pre-1967 anti-homosexual laws. They automatically spoke the polari and taught it to younger men and to women and girls, like myself, who lived in that world. And one of my favourite words was ‘trolling’.
When you went out trolling you got your glad rags on, put the sexiest pout you could imagine on your face and you went out hunting for love. Places like the Kings Road in Chelsea, the Soho district and pubs like the Salisbury in St Martin’s Lane were prime sites to troll and be trolled at. I regularly used to waft around such places covered in make-up, wearing feathers and smoking furiously. We trolled for all we were worth and sometimes we met men who appreciated us all the more for it. There was even, and still is, a drag act called The Trollettes – featuring the fabulous Jimmy and Maisie Trollette – who I saw many times back in those outré and yet strangely innocent days.
Troll, trolling, trollette – these are very naughty words indeed but because of my personal past I do still love them despite their sinister modern connotations. So maybe it’s time for troll to get on its bike and change its meaning again. I like the trolling that involves putting on too much jewellery, drinking gin and flirting with dark eyed men in shady pubs. With that in mind I’ve decided to start using the ‘t’ word in its old, gay patois sense and not dignify people who abuse RIP sites with such a deliciously wonderful term. Keep trolling fun is what I say – keep it outré, kind and fabulous.