These words will change the way you think of clickbait forever
It started with assistant professor Laura Seay, who mused in a tweet: ‘Thinking of changing the weekly headings on my syllabi to clickbait. “You won’t believe this one thing Britain & France did to Africa!” Seay continued riffing on the idea, and then it clicked: #ClickbaitSyllabus. Twitter quickly took to her hashtag, clever parodying the language of listicles, of ‘this one weird trick’ and ‘what happens next will blow your mind’, that defines so much of the way we create and consume content online today.
Clickbait – a compound of click and bait, dating back to 1999 and signifying ‘content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to particular web page’ – isn’t just inspiring hashtags like #ClickbaitSyllabus. It’s also breeding a whole new vocabulary for our modern digital lives.
Mignon Fogarty, or Grammar Girl, spotted quizbait (themed online personality quizzes), crybait (tearjerking viral videos), and likebait (posts out to win ‘likes’). These neologisms find good company in linkbait, sharebait, and tweetbait, which seek to entrap links, shares, or tweets from online users. Other -baits seek to provoke angry responses online, like flamebait, hatebait, or trollbait, named for the practice of internet trolling.
But for as novel as clickbait and its offspring seem, the compound construction, NOUN + bait, actually has a long history. Please note: the following section contains some strong language.
From pogey-bait to hipster-bait: the enduring allure of -bait
One early example of a –bait compound is pogey-bait, U.S. naval slang for ‘candy’ or a ‘snack’ a soldier enjoyed outside the mess hall during World War I. The OED records the term in 1918; while its origin is unclear, pogey-bait presumably would have attracted pogy, a kind of herring found in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, on the other side of world, Australians spoke of shark-bait, lone swimmers braving waters far off from shore, which the dictionary attests by 1920.
Lexicographer Ben Zimmer points us to other ‘slangy’ –bait compounds. One, draft-bait, is also military at root, characterizing a view of young men in the Second World War. Others, like bachelor bait and whistle bait, were cant for, respectively, an ‘unmarried woman’ or an ‘attractive woman’. Zimmer finds these in Vincent J. Monteleone’s 1949 Criminal Slang, which also yields a more lasting example: jailbait, ‘a girl under age’. What this (fairly unpleasant) term alludes to is ‘a young woman, or young women collectively, considered in sexual terms but under the age of consent’, because sexual intercourse would be illegal and result in the perpetrator facing a jail sentence.
Jailbait may have influenced other derogatory compounds like queerbait, ‘a man who attracts the attention of gay men’, documented by the late 1957 and fuckbait, which Urban Dictionary entered in 2005 for ‘a woman open to casual sex’.
Cultural critics have repurposed queerbait in a more recent formulation: queer-baiting, where media lure LGBTQ viewers by teasing LGBTQ relationships. This coinage, which draws on a verb form of bait, looks back to race-baiting and red-baiting, both of which the OED traces to 1920s American English. Red-baiting (1927) is ‘the harassment or persecution of people known or suspected to be communists’. Yet earlier (1923) and, sadly, more durable, is race-baiting: ‘the incitement of racial hatred’. In these constructions, it’s hard not to remember bear-baiting, the vicious Elizabethan sport of setting dogs on chained bears.
Other -bait compounds are much less nefarious than the likes of race-baiting, though not without their scorn. Oscar-bait, which takes off in the 1990s, is a common way to deride a film that seems geared to garner Academy Awards, or Oscars. In a similar vein, some writers play with -bait to describe trendy new restaurants as foodie-bait, bespoke objects as hipster-bait, or over-hyped attractions as tourist-bait.
From navy ships to surfing online, -bait has proven a long appealing, er, bait, for new words. And the success of words like clickbait, especially as -bait captures the psychology of so much our online behavior, promises a long life ahead. It will be interesting to watch, if more -bait compounds propagate for Internet phenomena, whether we come to think of -bait as a technological suffix all its own, or what linguistics Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix. That’s a question to be addressed in a literal clickbait syllabus.