I learned a new term while reading student papers this past weekend: “catfish.” I thought I was relatively cyberliterate, but this one I hadn’t seen or heard. My student defined it for his reader: “Not the gill-bearing creature, but the person who creates a false identity on a social networking site to bait people to talk to him or her, and sometimes develop deep relationships. The ‘catfish’ most likely experienced some overwhelming event and uses the alias to escape the unpleasantness of that reality.” Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the definition, but at any rate you can see that the writer is no slouch at putting words on paper.
But then, alas, his vocabulary lets him down:
“Less radical than duking people into talking to a false identity is luring them into accepting a reality show as ‘reality.’”
You and I know what he meant. He meant “duping.”
Was this a typo or a mistake? I just went to Word and typed in “duking,” confidently expecting the red underline that means “misspelling” to appear (I’m getting it reliably from WordPress). But evidently Bill Gates is okay with “duking,” because I got neither red underline nor notification when I ran spell-check. “P” and “K” are fairly close on the keyboard, although not close enough to be typed with the same finger…. So maybe it was just an unflagged typo.
Certainly, though, my friend Mr. Webster has no use for “duking.” As far as he’s concerned, “duke” is a noun. It might refer to a “sovereign ruler of a duchy” or other top-ranked hereditary nobleman; it might refer to a kind of hybrid cherry (no idea why); perhaps in relation to the power of the ruler, it might be slang for fist, “especially in the plural.” I could imagine a verbal form, but he doesn’t offer “to duke” as, perhaps, “to confer ducal rank on.”
Webster doesn’t allow a verb “to duke” meaning “to punch with one’s fists,” either, although of course that’s what leaped to my mind when I saw my student’s statement. “Duking people into talking to a false identity,” I imagined, was beating them into submission, into taking a lie for the truth, sort of like forcing them to bow down to a false idol. Or what Lucy said to Charlie Brown in one comic strip: “Admit I’m a lady or I’ll punch you again.”
I have to confess to falling a little in love with this new verb! It’s just one degree of force shy of “decking,” or “knocking down forcibly with the fists”: She duked him again and again, and finally decked him.
If my student had had violence in mind, his “duking” might have been a misspelling or mishearing of “decking,” for that matter. But most of his discussion has to do with deception, stealth, insinuation: not force. The (real) catfish is a bottom feeder and hangs out down there in the mud; I wonder if the cyberterm comes from the idea of lurking. Or maybe its barbels (nice word, that!) deceive observers into thinking it’s an actual cat (an underwater cat…?), and the cyberterm is meant to evoke this deceptive appearance. My student might be implying that the barbels look like worms and thereby attract other critters the catfish might prey on…. Or maybe those barbels, rather innocent-looking but in some species capable of stinging things that come too close, made the cybercoiner think merely of hidden or disguised danger. I have no idea, but I am willing to see in the term some association with false impressions. That’s how I know my student didn’t mean to write “decking.”
Yes, we can be sure he meant “duping.” All that’s unknown is whether he misspelled “duping” or actually thinks the word is “duking.” Until he tells me otherwise, I’m going to enjoy the possibility that it’s the latter.