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The Word

Catfish: How Manti Te’o’s imaginary romance got its name

Why we turn to stories to label strange human deceptions

When the bizarre story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and his imaginary girlfriend broke earlier this month, one word shot to prominence with blinding speed: “catfish.”

“Catfish” is the name of a 2010 documentary about an online romance that turned out to be predicated on a fictitious identity. The makers of the movie developed a spinoff reality show for MTV, also called “Catfish,” devoted to the same theme of duplicity in virtual relationships. Te’o’s story fit the “Catfish” narrative: He fell for a girl he never met based on a trumped-up social media presence, before her tragic “death” from leukemia. He had been “catfished.”

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