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.
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".]