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

Why we turn to stories to label strange human deceptions

Diane O’ Meara (left), whose image was used for the fictional Lennay Kekua, and alleged hoax victim Manti Te’o (right).

AP, Globe Staff illustration, Getty Images

Diane O’ Meara (left), whose image was used for the fictional Lennay Kekua, and alleged hoax victim Manti Te’o (right).

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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“Catfish” is only the latest in a long line of shorthand terms, often derived from literary or cinematic allusions, to designate the deceptive psychological games that people play. Such shorthand can take a whole complex pattern of behavior and boil it down into a pithy linguistic packet, but it can also help us get a handle on seemingly inexplicable personal dynamics by evoking a juicy, compelling narrative. In the case of “catfishing,” it’s a narrative tailor-made for the age of Twitter and Facebook.

After the sports blog Deadspin revealed that the supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was a hoax, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick attempted to explain Te’o’s victimization by pointing to the documentary and MTV series “and the sort of associated things you’ll find online and otherwise about ‘catfish’ or ‘catfishing.’” He described “catfishing” as a scam “perpetrated with shocking frequency,” admitting that he had learned the term from a recent episode of “Dr. Phil.”

Before the documentary was released, Urban Dictionary entries for “catfish” included various negative metaphorical uses, typically referring to an ugly person or “bottom-feeder” of some sort. But after the film’s debut, a new definition emerged: “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances,” as a July 22, 2010, entry puts it. The following year, an entry for “catfished” illustrated how the new word could be used as a verb (a usage that the MTV show has sought to capitalize on).

But why “catfish” in the first place? At the end of the movie, the husband of the scam’s perpetrator is interviewed and spins an anecdote about how live codfish were shipped from Alaska to China in vats. In order to keep the cod’s flesh from getting mushy, someone came up with the idea of putting catfish in the vats to “keep the cod agile.” He further explained that “there are those people who are catfish in life”: “They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh.”

The tale of the catfish and the cod has all the hallmarks of apocryphal folklore, and indeed it has been floating around in one form or another for at least a century. It was used as a kind of Christian parable (referring to the Atlantic rather than the Pacific fishing trade) in Henry W. Nevinson’s 1913 “Essays in Rebellion” and again in Charles Marriott’s novel “The Catfish” published later the same year.

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In those days, the catfish story served a moralistic purpose, but it had nothing to do with matters of the heart. Even then, though, there were romantic frauds—and a need to name them. A full-page New York Times Magazine article in 1910 told of “poor George Osborne,” a Connecticut bachelor who had been deceived for many years into thinking that he was writing love letters to his sweetheart, when in fact it was an elaborate ploy by his neighbor to bilk him.

The headline of the article, “Wooed a ‘Marjorie Daw’ for Fourteen Long Years,” alluded to an 1869 short story by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in which an exchange of letters between two friends leads to one of them inventing the titular character. His correspondent falls for young Marjorie Daw and seeks her out, until (in the last line of the story) she is revealed to be a fabrication. Aldrich’s work was celebrated at the time and inspired such writers as O. Henry to make their own short stories with dramatic twist endings.

Literature has provided metaphorical models for human deceit at least since Homer and Virgil described the treachery of the “Trojan horse.” The tall tales associated with Baron Münchhausen, a fictionalized version of a real 18th-century German nobleman, prompted the British physician Richard Asher in 1951 to dub the condition of feigning illness in order to draw sympathy “Munchausen syndrome.”

But the closest historical parallel to “catfishing” also comes from the silver screen. In George Cukor’s 1944 mystery thriller “Gaslight” (which followed a play and an earlier film adaptation), a man (Charles Boyer) tries to convince his new wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she is going insane, in order to steal her fortune. The movie title inspired a new verbal noun, “gaslighting,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”

Why do we keep returning to dramatic touchstones to label such real-world double-dealing? (“Catfish,” though a documentary, has the feel of a ripping yarn, so much so that some have questioned whether scenes were staged.) When an account like Te’o’s surfaces, it can seem stranger than fiction. It makes sense, then, that we fall back on the language of storytellers to describe these true-life dramas of
deception.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and ­Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.

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