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Shifted meanings: flash mob

Flash mob is a relatively recent addition to Oxford Dictionaries Online. The phrase is defined in the World English version of the dictionary as “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again”, and with somewhat more brevity in the US version as “a sudden mass gathering, unanticipated except by participants who communicate electronically”. However, readers who have been paying close attention to  the  news stories of the past few weeks might well have noticed a shift in the way that flash mob is being used, certainly in the US media. Consider the following.

“‘Flash mob’ crimes: How good are police at tracking down culprits?” was a recent headline in the Christian Science Monitor. Reuters had a story on this phenomenon titled “Youth curfew to stop flash mobs in Philadelphia extended”. The International Business Times trumpeted “Flash mob robberies strike D.C. area twice in one week”, while CBS aimed for witty with a story titled “Flash mob flash robs a Maryland 7-Eleven”.

Leaving aside the criminal aspect, something that wasn’t present certainly in the initial meaning, this extension of meaning seems to share some common ground with the term smart mob. Whilst flash mobs used technology in their organization, the point of the exercise was that it was a flash in the pan – the event took place and the participants then scattered. With a smart mob, the idea seems to be that technology is then also utilized to move the proceedings on. This idea certainly seems to be present with these more nefarious flash mobs.

The two strands of meaning can co-exist. A flash mob can be a gathering of complete strangers performing a pointless act and dispersing, as well as a group of unruly teens who gather to wreck mayhem and perform robberies. It is not uncommon for a word or phrase to change or extend in meaning. A dictionary would be a very small tome if that were the case. But what is more unusual about flash mob is that it seems to be taking on this second meaning shortly after it got its first. This is not without precedent: scofflaw is a similar case in point. It was coined in 1924 to describe the ‘lawless drinkers’ who existed during Prohibition, but soon after liquor became legal again in the United States, scofflaw began to be used to describe motorists who broke the law, and now has a general meaning of ‘someone who flouts the law’.

As to whether flash mob develops any further nuances, we can only wait and watch.

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