Monday, August 04, 2008

Malwebolence -- evil in the tubes

I hadn't heard the word malwebolence before today. But it gets 144,00 Google™ hits. Many of them are recent. It's malevolence on the web.

Rich Hannon in a recent Spectrum blog post uses it in the title of a NYTimes article he read about trolls and the online havoc they wreak.

It's an interesting word. Mal- is of course the prefix indicating general … uh … badness -- be it through evil or neglect. Malevolent malnourished maladroit malign &c The sense of willful evil isn't still there in all these words tho malus was evil in Latin.

Web is the locative infix. No it's not. But I've not used the phrase locative infix yet on this blog and when it comes to a bad joke I believe better wrong than never.

And -olence?

We can't get too technical with coined terms such as these. They don't often follow an etymological orthodoxy. So the -ol- would normally be connected to a -volen- base (a form based on the present participle of Latin velle; desire, will) that we find as the center piece in male-/ bene-/ [volen] \-t \-ce and other related frankenwords.

Hannon suggests another etymology:

Malwebolence is a newly coined word that hacks together mal (bad), web and violence.

I'm not sure where Hannon gets this analysis. The web story doesn't offer the etymology. Tho he says the title is "Malwebolence – The Trolls Among Us" the online page itself only uses "The Trolls Among us" as the title. There is a link to the story under the heading Malwebolence - The World of Web Trolling. But the body of the story doesn't even have the word. Is it in the print version? Any readers out there?

Well -- whoever did it -- throwing violence in there is an unnecessary stretch. It's etymologically gratuitous violence. I'll stick with web malevolence as the influence.

But what I like most about the word is the solid phonological link to the original. If all we're doing to malevolence is using -web- instead of -ev- we have a nice w / l__ɛ which makes some sense. It's almost vocalization. In a while we'll test the pronunciation to see if the l can sustain an adjacent w without being swallowed up into pure vocalization. And then of course going from v to b requires only a tiny little change from +continuant to -continuant. The sound is still consonantal. It's still voiced. And since English doesn't have a labiodental stop the loss of continuance naturally nudges it over into the bilabial column. And phonologically they're both just [labial] anyway. Gorgeous.


  1. I agree with your etymological analysis. I searched and serached for some definition before I took the tack I did in my Spectrum article. So I took a shot :-). The NY Times article does give illustrations of violence. But had I gleaned malevolence from the munged word I would have gone with your analysis. It just didn't hit me at the time.

    - Rich Hannon

  2. It's all part of the fun. Language doesn't take us by the hand and explain all it's little games to us. Cheers Rich.

  3. >In a while we'll test the pronunciation to see if the l can sustain an adjacent w without being swallowed up into pure vocalization.

    So you posit a possible final pronunciation of ... ?

    I find it interesting that someone's "passion" is "pushing people's buttons."* What the hell kind of hobby is that? :-)

    * Am I just totally wrong, or did the mighty NYT give us an apostrophe error here?

  4. Why mawebolence of course.

    I say that because in a first draft of the final paragraph I was thinking that was the word. It's easier anyhow.

  5. You know what else gets 144,00 hits? Yeah -- I know you do.

  6. Oh man. I knew that number sounded familiar.

  7. Sorry, coming to the party late. The print version was indeed entitled "Malwebolence - The World of Web Trolling," and you can see that title in the NYT archive. That's also the page title of the online article, even though the headline they use there reads "The Trolls Among Us." (For more on why the Times uses different headlines in print and online editions, see "This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.")

    I touched on malwebolence briefly in my Word Routes column about a word in the article (eristic) -- linking to relevant discussion about "sandwich words" (John Algeo's term) in a Language Log post I wrote about the word blawg.

  8. Here's another new sandwich word from the Double-Tongued files: diworsification.

  9. Ah I like that. It sounds like my German stockbroker is already doing that to my portfolio.


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