Flash mobs

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Last week, I exchanged a few emails with a journalist about "flash mobs",  a phrase that is now widely used in reference to impromptu gangs of teens who converge suddenly to rob stores or attack passers-by. My correspondent felt that this is a misuse based on a misunderstanding. For her,  what the kids are doing should properly be called "wilding". And "flash mob", in her view, ought to be reserved for the groups of hipsters who (used to?) use social media to arrange impromptu public gatherings with frivolous goals: imitating bird calls, having pillow fights, inspecting couches, striking disco poses. It struck my correspondent as Wrong to shift the reference of "flash mob" from this Surrealism Lite to random collective assault and pillage.

Although I shared her understanding of what "flash mob" meant eight years ago, and her mild surprise at seeing it re-purposed, I'm afraid that I failed in my assigned role of lexicographical conservative. I observed that meanings of words and phrases change all the time — they get broader or narrower, they drift sideways, they pick up associations like barnacles — and sometimes they change by being misunderstood or applied in unexpected areas or re-interpreted from first principles.

Misunderstanding or re-imagining is especially likely for rare or new terms. In the case of wilding, for example, there's some reason to think that the original spread of this word in 1990 was based on law enforcement authorities in NYC misunderstanding pronunciations of "wild thing". Here's the original source:

The youths who raped and savagely beat a young investment banker as she jogged in Central Park Wednesday night were part of a loosely organized gang of 32 schoolboys whose random, motiveless assaults terrorized at least eight other people over nearly two hours, senior police investigators said yesterday.

Chief of Detectives Robert Colangelo, who said the attacks appeared unrelated to money, race, drugs or alcohol, said that some of the 20 youths brought in for questioning had told investigators that the crime spree was the product of a pastime called "wilding."

''It's not a term that we in the police had heard before," the chief said, noting that the police were unaware of any similar incidents in the park recently. "They just said, 'We were going wilding.' In my mind at this point, it implies that they were going to go raise hell."

According to Barry Michael Cooper in the Village Voice 5/9/1989, quoted in Houston Baker, Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy:

The strange thing is, the kids I talked to uptown in El Barrio — kids who listen to the rap shows of DJ's Red Alert and Marley Marl, the supreme arbiters of new-jack-speak — said there's no such word as "wilding". […] Kareem from Tres Unidos said, "I've heard some people say, 'Yo, I'm going to do the wild thing," like the Tone-Loc song, which could mean a guy going to have sex with his girl, or just having a good time. Since we as blacks and Puerto Ricans tend to slur our words when we use slang, somebody probably said tha to a white reporter, and since that person probably didn't understnad waht was said to him or her, they clarified it by inventing the word 'wilding.' But I never heard of it, until I saw it in the headlines."

In the case of flash mob, the two words had a long history of change before they ever came together.

Flash started out with a meaning more like splash, involving a sudden motion of liquid, either intransitively

1577–87 R. Holinshed Chron. I. 181/2 The sea‥also flashed vp vnto his legs and knees.

or transitively:

1590 Spenser Faerie Queene ii. vi. sig. R7v, With his raging armes he rudely flasht, The waues about.

The OED says that

The use of the word to express movement of fire or light (branch III), which is now the most prominent application, has not been found (unless in one doubtful example) before the second half of the 16th cent. It seems to have originated in a transferred or extended use of sense 1; the coincidence of the initial sounds with those of flame may have helped the development of sense; compare Swedish dialect flasa, English dialect flaze, to blaze….

As for mob,  it began as a wry and slangy abbreviation for Latin mobile vulgus "fickle, excitable (common) crowd". One of the earliest citations in print is a complaint:

1711 J. Addison Spectator No. 135. ⁋10 It is perhaps this Humour of speaking no more than we needs must which has so miserably curtailed some of our Words,‥as in mob. rep. pos. incog. and the like.

So "flash mob" comes from words originally meaning something like "splash fickle".

And the two words "flash mob" came together for an early run in the 19th century, a century and a half before Bill Wasick persuaded 130 New Yorkers to assemble in Macy's to (pretend to) shop for a "love rug". The 19th-century version was based on an extended sense of flash, derived from the "sudden outburst of flame or light" meaning, which the OED traces from "gaudy, showy, smart. Of persons: Dashing, ostentatious, swaggering, 'swell'", through "Belonging to, connected with or resembling, the class of sporting men, esp. the patrons of the ‘ring’", to "Connected with or pertaining to the class of thieves, tramps, and prostitutes". Thus Thomas Mitchell, Journal of an expedition into the interior of tropical Australia, in search of a route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria (1848):

But still there were a few, amounting in all to six, who, even in such a party, animated by such hopes, could not divest themselves of their true character, nor even disguise it for a time, as an expedient for the achievement of their liberty. These men were known amongst the rest as the "flash mob." They spoke the secret language of thieves; were ever intent on robbing the stores, with false keys (called by them screws). They held it to be wrong to exert themselves at any work, if it could be avoided; and would not be seen to endeavour to please, by willing co-operation. They kept themselves out of sight as much as possible; neglected their arms; shot away their ammunition contrary to orders; and ate in secret, whatever they did kill, or whatever fish they caught.

Or Hippolyte Taine, Notes on Paris, translated by John Austin Stevens (1879):

Men of the world who live for pleasure and reach it one time in ten, shop-keepers who run after it and never reach it at all, courtesans and a flash mob who sell it or steal it. Such is Paris. One sole end: pleasure and display.

Given the meaning of the words today, the phrase "flash mob" could be applied to any undisciplined group (the mob part) that "flares up" suddenly (the flash part). The original 2003-era application was to groups who used social media to arrange gather suddenly in public places to do silly things. In the recent uses, the goals of the "flash mobs" have been darker: vandalism, robbery, assault, general trouble-making. Traditional "mobile vulgus" stuff, frankly.

So it might be a big social and moral step from the pranks of "inexplicable crowds" in 2003 to the crimes of today's "tsunamis of kids", but the semantic step is a small one.

My correspondent explained that she was "trying to get a feel for how a word/phrase enters the lexicon and evolves, even erroneously". But the only words that haven't "evolved erroneously" are the words that are too new to have evolved at all.

In some cases, you might have to go back a few hundred or even a few thousand years to find the "mistakes". And sometimes we don't know enough of the history to be able to identify the mistakes. But they're back there somewhere, you can count on it.

To forestall misunderstanding, I'm not making the argument that any sincere use of any word or phrase is ipso facto "right". Languages, standard and otherwise, have norms, and those who violate these norms are likely to judged for it. But what starts out as a specialization, extension, or plain mistake can become a new norm, if people take it up.

[Some may be curious, as I was, about what the French original of Stevens' "flash mob who sell it or steal it" was. Here's the same passage from Taine's 1867 Notes sur Paris (with its long and amusing tail of subtitles):

Des gens du monde qui vivent pour le plaisir et l'attrapent une fois sur dix, des bourgeois qui courent après sans l'atteindre, des filles et une populace interlope qui le vendent ou le filoutent : voilà Paris.

Un seul but : jouir et paraître.

A more literal translation of "populace interlope" would be something like "shady rabble". It's also interesting that Stevens rendered "des bourgeois" as "shopkeepers".]


  1. GeorgeTheArchon said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    See also Larry Niven's 1970's tales of 'flash crowds', where crowds can appear at spots of interest shown on news reports (via teleportation), until a critical mass occurs and riots and looting kick-off. Irterstingly, the titular story concerned with how to police this situation effectively, but is rooted in Niven's self-consistent 'future' of Earth.


  2. Dunx said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    "meanings of words and phrases change all the time — they get broader or narrower, they drift sideways, they pick up associations like barnacles — and sometimes they change by being misunderstood or applied in unexpected areas or re-interpreted from first principles"

    This is a basic point, but one that I really ought to try and remember when considering how the word "hacking" is used by the general public. That probably won't make me less angry, though.

  3. greg said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    Personally, I would love to see a journalist revive the usage of "going viking" when describing the "flash robs" (another recent coinage I've seen to specify the robbery-by-flash-mob phenomenon).

  4. NW said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    I haven't seen 'wilding' or this new use of 'flash mob' before. I thought I was 'hip' (is that what you young people say?) to know the old 'flash mob', because a couple of days I thought I was clever in coining 'flash-shopping' to describe what's been going on in Britain. I was inspired by the South African term 'affirmative shopping', but wanted something more 'with-it' (is that what you say now?).

  5. Gunnar H said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    I thought the older instance of "flash mob" must be a variation on the "swell mob" of elegant, faux-gentlemanly thieves found in Dickens etc., bolstered by the OED definition that gives the two words as synonyms. But an 1856 citation from one GL Chesterton (http://vcp.e2bn.org/gaols/page11635-thieves.html) contrast the two terms:

    "A grand distinction is to be drawn, in this respect, between the swell mob and common thieves; the former being, for the most part, men of the world, of some education – not appearing at all flash (thief-like), but, on the contrary, acting the part of gentlemen in society."

    Reading the Mitchell quotation more closely, it too seems to be saying that the flash mob consists of people who are too uncouth and undisciplined to disguise their criminal character.

    Given that history, it seems more appropriate to apply "flash mob" to the gangs that terrorize people, loot and destroy than to the kooky pranksters and volunteer performance artists who recently borrowed the name.

  6. Brett said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    @Dunx: What do you mean by "general public"? Do you mean non-programmers? To me, the "general public" who might use "hacking" in a way that deviates significantly from the older usage I prefer essentially consists of everybody who didn't go to MIT.

    As words are adopted by larger and larger groups of people, their meanings shift. I have no complaints about people using "hacking" to mean new things; that's just how language evolves. However, I do recall several instances when I was in college where people (relatively new to MIT) would use "hacking" in what would be, elsewhere, a completely normal computer programming usage, which I and other people would snicker at.

  7. Grant Barrett said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    Another fork in the road for "flash mob" is that it has gone from the hipster-organized semi-secretly-planned public displays of quirkiness meant to delight un-clued passersby, to non-secret publicly organized, publicly practiced events (often zombies or choreographed dances or both) to which everyone is invited to participate or watch. Flash mob events now show up in to-do listings in newspapers days or weeks in advance. Like modern sock hops. Or the new line-dancing.

  8. Mr Punch said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    My take is that "flash mob" has meant, for quite a while now, a group assembled near-spontaneously through real-time communications – just a step beyond Nevin's usage. The fact that the activity has moved beyond hipsters to, e.g., thugs does not change the underlying sense.

  9. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    I too found the word "hack" leaping to mind as I read this post. I've been a mostly-hobbyist programmer since the late 1970s, and I used the word in its railroad-club sense for a long time. I even persisted for a few years after it had morphed into its current, vaguely criminal sense.

    I've made my peace.

    OTOH, the resulting void has not really been filled. If you were to show off a few nifty lines of code that efficiently solve a problem, a kibitzer no longer has a way of expressing the sentiment once conveyed by, "Nice hack, dude."

    [(myl) You seem to be assuming that a word can't be polysemous, or at least can't be used in two different but related ways. I mean, there were already (and still are) hack writers, hacksaws, hacking around, hacking into pieces, etc. — none of those usages vanished as a result of the "computer crime" meaning, so why should "nice hack" be lost? I use it fairly often, secure in the knowledge that in most cases someone who's capable of creating a "nice hack" knows what the phrase "nice hack" does and doesn't mean.]

  10. Katje said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    "Flash mob" was used in its meaning that you attribute to "eight years ago" on the most recent season of the ABC comedy "Modern Family." Also, it was used this way in my local area (Albany, NY) just this past December when a group got together to sing a Christmas carol in an area mall.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    To add to what @Katje said: It's also being used in that way in a (rather annoying) television advertisement for some mobile telephone service or other.

  12. LHC said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    @Spell Me Jeff, I work in IT, and also am an amateur programmer (since I don't get paid for it anymore). If I wanted to convey the meaning of "Nice hack, dude" I would say "Nice hack, dude." In my experience, the people to whom you might say that still understand the original (or at least, earlier) meaning. Except of course that now the dude is more likely than to be a dudette than in the past.

  13. Levi Montgomery said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    And "splash fickle," of course, = "splashsickle" = "jetski." Yes?

  14. Russell Borogove said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    "Flash mob" in the sense of internet-organized impromptu gathering to do something fun/silly/noncriminal always seemed directly derived from Niven's "Flash Crowd".

  15. Erik said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    While I normally have no complaint about a term taking on new meanings, through whatever mechanism is in place, I do think that sometimes, in certain situations (like this one), it can be very problematic.

    In this case, the sudden frivolous gatherings that were (and are still) called "flash mobs" are meant to be harmless, but unexpected amusements. But it was not uncommon for some people who see them to be worried when dozens or hundreds of people suddenly began engaging in activities that seemed to have no motivation. A lot of early flash mobs had uncomfortable run-ins with security or law enforcement. (Yes, sometimes the activity was genuinely problematic, but there are certainly instances where the only thing that troubled the authorities was that they didn't understand what was going on.) Now perhaps I'm misjudging this, but I think that since the idea has gained notoriety, these kinds of misunderstandings have happened less frequently. (Compare the response of police officers during the first few annual No-Pants Subway Rides that Improv Everywhere organized to their response during the last few years.) Surprised bystanders are now more likely to just say "oh, I bet this is one of those flash-mob thingies," and not be worried than they were before they'd heard of them. It's still kind of a tenuous acceptance for many, and the slightest indication that these flash mobsters are going to cause genuine problems is enough to make some authority figures try to get involved.

    Now, "flash mob" is picking up a new meaning, which describes an event that is similar in its suddenness and magnitude but is much more sinister. Unfortunately, people are still using "flash mob" in its older meaning, and so an undesirable connection is being drawn between the two concepts. If the two concepts were from completely different domains of discourse, there would probably be no problem, but that's not the case here. I worry that the new meaning is quite literally giving flash mobs a bad name.

    Of course, there's probably nothing we can do about it now, but I wanted to point out that merely being a natural evolutionary step of language isn't enough to justify some change as a good thing. I think in this case, this is a change that can be called "bad". (As long as we don't claim that it's "wrong".)

  16. Mark F. said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    In the 1800's use of "flash mob", It seems like the sense of "flash" being used was the adjectival sense that I've come to associate with pre-1850's London in some fiction I've read. In the "8 years ago" sense, I think it's an attributive noun. My take is that they're two entirely independent coinages.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    I'm curious about the description of flash mobs (the frivolous fun kind) as impromptu. The ones I've seen (via internet video) come across as very much planned, not impromptu. Erik's description of them as sudden works much better, since from the perspective of the uninvolved bystanders they are sudden.

  18. Dakota said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    Here's a sampler of flash mobs including Improv Everywhere:

    There is also an (unrelated) Australian usage:

  19. Mark Mandel said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Eric: "It's still kind of a tenuous acceptance for many, and the slightest indication that these flash mobsters are going to cause genuine problems is enough to make some authority figures try to get involved."

    I would much rather call them "flash mobbers" when using or including the older, non-violent sense of "flash mob".

  20. Mark Mandel said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Sorry, I mean "Erik", August 12, 2011 @ 12:10 pm.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    The hipster coinage attempted to make light, playful, perhaps even annoying-hipster-ironic use of a word ("mob") which traditionally had strong, probably core, semantic associations with violence and criminality. A reappropriation of the coinage to refer to events displaying violence and criminality thus seems particularly unsurprising. (I think of the BrEng adjectival "flash" as vaguely youthful slang from the '60's or '70's, and was interested to see it attested way back in Victorian times.)

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    I've never been involved in it, but my understanding is that contemporary flash mobs are often assembled through Twitter.

  23. Maurice Buxton said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    I'm with GeorgeTheArchon and Russell Borogove on this one: my impression of the way this happened is that "flash mob", used in either of the ways above or related ones, was a natural extension of the use of "flash crowd" to describe an Internet phenomenon. And that was originally almost certainly directly referencing the Larry Niven story. It seems to be one of those geeky in-jokes that became mainstream, and generalised while doing so.

  24. Katje said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    Robert Coren: Yes! I had forgotten about that commercial. A man shows up in a large train station, possibly Grand Central, removes the trench coat he is wearing, and begins to do a choreographed dance routine (to no music). He suddenly realizes that no one else is doing the routine. His cell phone beeps, he checks it, and sees that he has a text message: "Flash mob moved to 12:30." A couple of other people in the station are wearing trench coats and giving him a "you idiot, you ruined everything" look. Message: with a better cell-service provider, he'd have gotten the message on time and not ruined everyone's fun.

  25. Bob Moore said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    The 19th century sense of "flash mob" sounds like the same sense of "flash" that I encountered in England in the 1980s to mean approximately what Americans would use "fancy" for. E.g., a Mercedes or Rolls Royce would be called a "flash car". At the SRI lab in Cambridge, we had Sun workstations with an anti-reflective coating on the CRT displays, which the local Sun maintenance technician referred to as "flash screens" because they were uncommon and more expensive than the CRTs without the coating.

  26. JMM said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    I truly doubt that Larry Niven had anything to do with the genesis of the 'flash mob' phrase. It might have had something to do with the mobs in mosh pits, which were already passé when flash mobs began, but the people in those groups wouldn't have needed a second tier genre writer from thirty years earlier to give them a phrase. I know a few twenty-somethings now and did ten years ago, and am sure less than a tenth of a percent of the people who were ever really in a flash mob could have named a book by Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein, much less taken a term from Niven.

    Alas, our adolescence may not be part of the future unless it is rediscovered (well, we rediscovered Huxley and Robert Johnson, so it could happen, but twenty-somethings replace themselves every decade, which is a problem.).

    Anyway, while I agree that words may (and should) take on new meanings, I'll miss the old meaning of 'flash mob' because I like absurdity (that's why I like dealing with twenty year-olds.), and it won't work as an inside, limited group jargon, the way the old meaning of hack has survived it's added connotations. But they will probably come up with something else anyway.

  27. dazeystarr said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    This (short) article of June 27 from the Philadelphia edition of The A.V. Club (a non-satirical sister publication of The Onion) describes a violent mass attack by teenagers that injured one of their editors. Concern for "misuse" of the term flash mob is evident throughout. I took note of it when I first read the article, as the writer's preoccupation with semantics threatened to overshadow the horror of the attack he was ostensibly focusing on.


  28. Acilius said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

    I think the better arguments here are to be found on the "conservative" side (viz, those who think it's too bad that "flash mob" has taken on this new meaning.) I would pick up on Erik's 12:10 PM posting and go a bit further than he did. If the thing that "flash mob" denoted in 2003 were as familiar as some of us would like it to be, then the expression would not have been likely to take on this particular meaning. The fact that it has come to mean "mayhem" is a sad comment on our collective imagination, representing as it does a case where the image of whimsy and goodwill has been displaced by the image of violence.

    And let there be no doubt that if the violent meaning is established, it will be a displacement. No one is likely to describe some whimsical activity in which s/he took part or which s/he enjoyed witnessing with a term that suggests a sudden outburst of violence. Perhaps a new term will emerge to name the benevolent "flash mobs," perhaps it won't. Perhaps the benevolent "flash mobs" were a fad that had already ended and been replaced by something else, as both the original post and Grant Barrett's 9:15 AM comment indirectly suggest. In that case, the loss of the other meaning will be an inconvenience only to people who want to share their reminiscences of whimsical things they and their online acquaintances did to surprise and delight bystanders in years gone by, and who open their stories by inadvertently giving the impression that they used to join in acts of mayhem.

    I agree that professors of linguistics are ill-placed to resist or even to lament changes in language, however sad those changes may be. But perhaps non-linguists, especially those who pay enough attention to the scientific study of language to choose their battles intelligently, might from time to time raise a protest against a development like this one, which obscures whimsy and elevates violence.

  29. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    I know a few twenty-somethings now and did ten years ago, and am sure less than a tenth of a percent of the people who were ever really in a flash mob could have named a book by Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein, much less taken a term from Niven.

    Maybe so, but that doesn't necessarily imply that the term didn't originate from Niven. Many widely used words have very obscure origins, of course. People don't need to be familiar with a word's etymology to use it. That's the whole point of this discussion.

  30. kenny said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

    The fundamental meaning of "flash mob" as I understand it is the unexpected (by others) gathering of a noticeably large group of people (very loosely affiliated people–perhaps only connected by their participation in the flash mob) organized by social media. Now, USUALLY this happens for nonserious purposes, but it seems to me that the rioters by and large fit the definition. I don't feel like they're changing the definition, just increasing the prevalence of another sense of the term (?)

  31. John Burgess said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    I agree with Kenny. The term 'flash mob' is broad enough to encompass both the delightful and the disgusting. Both share the sense of '(semi) spontaneous gatherings brought about through the use of social media.'

    I recently read a not-very-good book whose author claimed to have originated the first flash mobs in NYC via Facebook. (Sorry, don't recall either author or title). His were intended to simply gather a large crowd at a location he chose. His purpose was to see if it could be done and how large a crowd he might gather. His invitations offered no motivation beyond, 'Let's gather.'

    I fear that if the singers and dancers want to find a category name for their activities, they're going to have to find something new. Flash mob is now irreparably associated with bad actors.

  32. JMM said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    @Keith: Of course what you say is true; words and phrases often derive from words and phrase which are moribund; it's the nature of the beast. But surely you are not saying that that is always the case!

    I believed we were disusing how 'modern' (pop) phrases could quickly take on new meanings, and that sometimes these might be related to antique meanings of the same phrase and that sometimes this might be lamentable. Was I wrong? (I'm waiting for your ruling.)

    Surely, you're not saying that new meanings, commonly used, have nothing to do with the most recent, and common, meanings of the constituent words, or are you? Surely you aren't saying that entomology and linguistics are the only fields in which Occam's Razor may never be used, are you? I don't believe you really believe that, but I'd like to know for sure.

  33. MJ said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    It was only tonight, about an hour ago, that I first came across the phrase "flash mob" in reading a story on CNN about the attack in Philadelphia that dazeystarr mentions. So this whole thread has been very enlightening.

  34. ShadowFox said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 3:03 am

    I find your argument utterly unpersuasive. You appear to assume that seat-of-the-pants statistical analysis has anything to do with word/phrase coinage. In fact, it is completely irrelevant how many of the flash mob participants have read or even ever heard of Larry Niven. All that is needed is ONE person who has the distinction of either being a top-level organizer or someone who communicated with the media concerning one of the events (it does not even have to be the original event). If such a person used the term "flash mob" either in communicating with participants–who then went forth and shared it with others–or in communications with the media, this usage would have been sufficient to stick. In fact, the terminology did not have to be invented by someone who had ANY relation to the events. It could have been coined by a journalist whose account of these events might have been influential in their popularization. It is only this person who would have had to have been familiar with Larry Niven and his obscure story, no one else. And the probability of a single person having read Larry Niven is much higher than that of some substantial fraction of a group of people.

    It seems that the origin of many of contemporary innovative terms can often be traced to a single source or a single vector that spreads an otherwise obscure expression. Why would "flash mob" be any different?

  35. Vireya said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 3:50 am

    In Australian English, a "mob" is just any group of people. Thus my mother can say, "I've got the mob from church here for afternoon tea." To me the use of "flash mob" in the quotation from 1848, is more about the "flashness"; they were a group of men who were flash. The flash mob may well have described the other members of the expedition as the "toff mob" or something similar.

  36. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 4:53 am

    Whimsy and irony are far too important to be taken lightly!

    I think it's a real shame that "flash mob" now conjures images of violence. I won't hold forth on the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the usage, or even "likelihood" or "observation," but I do feel that the loss of a way to express something whimsical and fun leaves us poorer.

    Incidentally, if I may be permitted a peeve, I typed this with direction-neutral doublequotes, and it's displaying with direction-wrong doublequotes. Preserve us from idiot interfaces that try to be helpful and get it wrong!

  37. Gunnar H said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    @Bob Moore

    "Flash" for "fancy" is still used in BrE, or at least it was within the last ten years. But while I agree that it's an intuitively plausible interpretation of the 19th-century "flash mob", if you'll read the post and my comment above you'll see that the word apparently went through a complicated series of developments that gave it nearly the opposite meaning: "thief-like," or having the appearance of a criminal, tramp or prostitute.

    I think the inversion has a lot to do with how subtly we judge displays of beauty and wealth as elegant or vulgar (and the fact that the appearance of criminals and prostitutes is often extreme: either gaudy or bedraggled). "Pimp" has moved the opposite way, from an association with prostitution to a general meaning of sprucing something up. (Interestingly, Wikipedia gives an unsourced speculation that the word originally derives from the French 'pimper': to dress up elegantly. In that case it's coming full circle.)

  38. Jamie said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    The 19thC meaning of flash mob reminded me of Flash Harry, the archetypal spiv.

  39. Mark F. said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    Gunnar H – Yes, that whole evolution of the adjective "flash" was clear from the fictional uses of it I've seen. But the point is, it's still an adjective, and its meaning as an adjective has nothing to do with "appearing suddenly".

    The "flash" in "flash mob", as it was used to describe crowds assembled via the internet, clearly is a reference to suddenness, and I really think it's an attributive noun. It just looks to me like the two terms have separate histories.

    As for Niven, the question won't be settled in his favor unless we find early users of the term who mentioned him. Definitely, when I first read it, it felt to me like an explicit allusion, as if somebody said "hey wait, we can actually do this thing that I read about in those science fiction stories as a kid".

  40. Marion Crane said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Re: "splash fickle" – in mobile vulgus ("fickle, excitable (common) crowd" as you say), it's the vulgus that means "fickle, excitable (common)", and mobile that means "crowd".

    Maybe you played it up and switched it around a bit for effect, but it made me do a double-take while reading.

  41. Rodger C said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    @Marion: No it's not.

  42. Marion Crane said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

    Really? Well, gosh, do I feel like a fool now for misremembering that…

  43. maidhc said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    There's another old meaning of "flash" given in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue–"knowing". "To patter flash"=to speak the flash language.

    The next meaning shows up mid-19th century in songs like "If it hadn't a been for flash company I'd never have been so poor" or "They know me round the backblocks as Flash Jack from Gundagai".

    I wonder if the modern meaning is related to the term "flash memory" or "flash drive". This was a marketing term applied to a type of electrically erasable read-only memory that had faster programming times than previously available technologies. "Flash drive" because to the user it has the same interface as a removable disk drive.

    According to my recollection, flash memory became a ubiquitous technology a few years before the "flash mob" idea became popular. Of course as a type of practical joke, people have been doing things like that for years, but I don't think it had a particular name until social media made it easier to coordinate and it became a bit of a fad.

    I think it's interesting that "flash" as a adjective is little used since the 19th century, and suddenly emerges in two different technology-related concepts right around the same time.

  44. Chris Waters said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

    The association with Niven could even have come indirectly through a source like Wikipedia. Flash knowledge, if you will. It only takes a few people noticing a connection between events that are occurring and similar events from old science fiction stories to get a name to spread these days, especially if the name fits.

    That said, I think it's more likely that both names ("flash crowd" and "flash mob") were simply chosen as an obvious description of the phenomenon. No connection is necessary. But the fact that the events started because of new technology, and that people who like to find new uses for new technology (like creating flash mobs with cell phones) have a great deal of overlap with the kind of people who like science fiction, means the Niven connection still seems plausible.

  45. americaine said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    There was a story on NPR today about flash mobs. I was listening with my friend, and he was completely confused about why a flash mob would be violent. He was totally thinking of the coordinated weird activity kind.

  46. Susie said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    When I heard an NPR story about flash mobs the other day, I got thoroughly confused when they used the term in a way that was different from my understanding of the term. I actually couldn't follow the story, as I kept trying to figure out how a bunch of hipsters doing some ridiculous thing would cause such concern to parents and police. I gave up trying to understand the story, as the alternate definition you gave was not given by the reporters and changed the radio station.

  47. Monica Yant kinney said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    I'm the unnamed correspondent, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Addressed a bit of the issue last week (philly.com/kinney), still intrigued — but probably not as perplexed as the actual flash mobbers who don't know what to call their next impromptu Macy's opera or streetside electric slide.

    My interest is more anecdotal than academic, since society does a decent job of its own in coming up with something new to call something novel. (see, Planking, though rumor has it that mess of hipster weirdness is already dead and buried.)

    I suspect, my interest is also personal. Years ago, during the height of the Clinton controversy, I couldn't pick up the phone without hearing a snickering on the other end of the line. My good name, Monica, had become synonymous with smut!

    I did a little digging and birth records bore out my hunch: New parents had abandoned the name, Monica, fearful of saddling their little girls with the stain of notoriety. A leading onomastician confirmed my fears: In cases like these, involving names of only mild popularity, it can take an entire generation for the name to shake its controversy and return to it's original connotation.

  48. bianca steele said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    dazeystarr's comment is interesting. There was an incident in Boston not long ago where the controversy was otherwise. (Google "boston state police beach gang".) Search results suggest that the Boston Globe's editorial policy is against using"flash mob" in that way (though not headline policy).

  49. tanyasingsdido said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    I've always understood the 'flash' of flash mobs to be related to the 'flash floods' sense: something sudden and on a large scale (and completely unrelated to the 'Flash Harry' sense of ostentatious displays of wealth or extravagant taste). And the 'mob' bit not to have any negative connotation at all, but simply mean a crowd, or, further, an enthusiastic but basically well-intentioned crowd, such as when fans 'mob' their heroes.

    I don't know what word I would use to describe the more sinister happenings recently, but I suppose I can see why someone who wasn't in their twenties in the early years of this century might consider the characteristic of a crowd assembled by the use of social media to be the defining one. I too think it will be a shame if the commonly-accepted meaning changes in this way for good, but as the fad for whimsical flash-mobbing itself seems to be on the way out this seems somewhat inevitable.

  50. bianca steele said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    Also, in the OP, myl writes, "I observed that meanings of words and phrases change all the time — they get broader or narrower, they drift sideways, they pick up associations like barnacles — and sometimes they change by being misunderstood or applied in unexpected areas or re-interpreted from first principles."

    Can writers (and editors) really change meanings of words themselves? Or is it accomplished by readers? Okay, it has to do with "communities" (don't know the terminology, I have only an outsider's, amateur interest in linguistics), but meanings changing when the community of newspaper reporters decide to all start using them differently–really?

  51. bianca steele said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    @tanyasingsdido: The problem is that "I can also see how some people might," when using the word "gang member," see skin color as the defining factor (as was apparently the case in the story I mentioned, and in another one in Boston, involving a club event organized by Ivy League alumni). Some of the discussion seems to put the focus on instruction of young people in a very basic kind of morality, assuming that the audience is young people who lack very widely shared bases for morality. There's a place for that. But every word doesn't have to make a distinction between moral and immoral people, surely (not that this is happening here, but it seems to be risked, especially when there is no friction pushing back in the reverse direction)?

  52. bianca steele said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Sorry for so many comments, but the idea of evolution in language is fascinating, and so is the idea of a new usage being "wrong." In history, changes don't back-apply: an undergraduate who thought the demographics of East London during the Blitz was the same as it is now would just be wrong. (East London seems to be where the other meaning of "flash" is coming from, but the same point would apply to someone who, for example, thought the Kensington and Allegheny neighborhood in Philadelphia in the 1980s was anything but lily-white.) But as someone in the thread pointed out, how can you know what the real origin and "real" meaning of a word are? And does it even really matter to anyone except an academic? Should people be changing the meanings they accept, not because people like themselves change those meanings, but because undergraduates, say, do–whether or not that's what would be done on an exam?

  53. Maureen said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    Slashdot used it early on:


    "Smart mob" seems to have collided with the older Niven "flash crowd" in a Reese's-like way.

  54. Maureen said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

    Try this link instead.

    "Smart Mobs, Swarms, and Flash Crowds", July 31, 2002.

  55. Roberta Wedge said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 7:18 am

    It doesn't change the linguistic point, but in the interest of accuracy, the rape in Central Park was not committed by the group of teenagers whose activities that night led to the more widespread use of the term "wilding". Their convictions appear to have been a miscarriage of justice; the phrase used here is "the convictions were vacated" in 2002.

  56. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 19, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman questioned the recent use of flash mob to mean “impromptu gangs of teens who converge suddenly to rob stores or attack passers-by,” […]

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