Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Catfishing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 2, 2015

Catfishing is when someone creates a false online identity for the express purposes of luring someone into a romantic relationship.

The term was used in the 2010 pseudo-documentary, “Catfish.”  It chronicles the story of Nev Schulman who met a woman on Facebook and a romantic relationship developed between them.  She led him to believe that she was young and available. He tracks her down in real life and finds out that she’s in her forties and married.

In this pseudo-documentary, a fake story is included from the early 1900s that states that catfish are the natural enemy of cod, and that fishermen shipping live cod from Alaska to China used to throw catfish into the barrels along with the cod to keep the cod active.  In keeping the cod active (as they allegedly swam for their lives in the barrel) this made the cod flesh firm and tasty instead of mushy.

This is an urban myth.

Firstly, seals, and not catfish, are enemies of cod.  Secondly, while transporting the cod from Alaska to China, the cod would need to be fed to stay alive while the catfish would supposedly have an endless supply of food thanks to the cod in the barrels with them.  Upon arrival, how many cod would still be alive and thriving in those barrels?  Thirdly, saltwater catfish are scavengers which excludes cod as their prey.

The urban myth, however, arises from a short story “The Catfish” by British war correspondent, campaigning journalist, political commentator, and suffragist Henry W. Nevinson (11 October 1856 – 9 November 1941) in his book “Essays In Rebellion” published in 1913.  Near the end of the story — which reads more like a sermon than a short story — the author wrote this:

At present in this country, for instance, and, indeed, in the whole world, there seem to be more catfish than cod, and the resulting liveliness is perhaps a little excessive, a little “jumpy.”

All that aside, the title of the pseudo-documentary “Catfish” stuck with popular culture, and the subject of the pseudo-documentary took on the title.

As an interesting side note, however, there have been bait-and-switch situations involving catfish, that harken to the spirit of the catfishing, and that have nothing to do with the pseudo-documentary.  This includes, but isn’t limited to, the investigation reported in the Boston Globe newspaper in 2011.  At restaurants and in fresh fish markets there was a hoax of another color (pardon the reworked idiom)!  Flounder fillet, which was priced at $23 per pound, turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish, priced at $4 per pound, and known as the nutritionally inferior swai.

When you reflect on the fact that catfish are typically bottom-feeder, the description is particularly apt in many respects.  After all, only a low-life bottom-feeder would lure someone into a relationships by means of a fictional online persona, right?

What this proves is that some idioms like catfishing have very abbreviated histories that date back a few short years.  In this case, catfishing dates back to 2010 and no further.

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