Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

How Phat is Phishing these Days?

PhishingLast October I wrote up fish as a Good Word, referring to the “silly spelling” of this word as phish around the Web. James Kilpatrick has claimed that it is “phutile to phuss” over this spelling because Google shows 622,000 examples of this “phatuous” spelling.

My first reaction was: “Good grief, has Google now become the authority for acceptable English?” Has that authority become a democratic process, like electing politicians to office? Do we do such a splendid job of electing the right people for the right job that we now want to elect correct spelling and usage?

My second reaction though was, “Big deal. Everything on the Web is so transitory 622,000 hits today mean little if anything.” However, while recent Good Words were swirling through my head, it occurred to me that we already have a word for phishing: pretexting.

According to Kilpatrick, the definition of phish that he found on the Web is: “The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.” My definition of pretexting is: “Obtaining secret or private information by pretending to be someone eligible to see that information; in other words, giving a fictitious identity (pretext) to obtain restrictive information.” The only difference is that the vehicle of the deception is e-mail. What difference does that make?

So Kilpatrick and I agree on the silliness factor in misspelling words like phish. These are attempts at creativity by the utterly uncreative. They should never have arisen in the first place but their continued survival only deepens the embarrassment.

2 Responses to “How Phat is Phishing these Days?”

  1. Cody Brimhal Says:

    Silliness? Misspelling? Are you sure you don’t mean helpful and correct? Both of your example words demonstrate a seemingly common process that slang goes through. Besides disambiguating the meanings of the words when they appear in writing (e.g. “that is one fat car” and “I was arrested for fishing” are more ambiguous than they would be with the alternative spellings), the mark the words’ origins in different communities. Off-beat misspellings are common for street slang, and the “ph” in phreak pays homage to the community of phreakers (a blend of “phone” and “freak”) that coined today’s slang usage of the word.

    If your point were about “creative” spelling changes that apply to words without changing their meanings, then I’d be right there with you (I will, however, overlook your creative spelling of “misspelling”). But what’s going on here is nothing like that. The spelling changes in question apply to words with meanings distinct from (albeit derivative of) their common English counterparts. Insofar as they serve to create–rather than confuse–distinctions in meaning, how is this bad?

  2. Joe Banks Says:

    You do realize that phat is an acronym and not just a silly spelling of fat dating back at least to the ’60s, right? Pretty hot and tempting. It has evolved over the years to mean something is pretty good or excellent.

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