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In my recent go rogue posting, I reported a comment on an earlier posting from Daniel Gustav Anderson on go rogue as a sexual euphemism, saying that at first I suspected the comment of being spam, but decided it was legit. Then Jake Townhead commented on my posting, questioning my use of the word spam and suggesting that Anderson's comment was merely "bespoke mischief". So now some words on spam.

First, a note on why I decided DGA's comment wasn't spam. Anderson appears to be a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University (in Virginia). He has a blog "For the Turnstiles … on critical theory and integral theory", and there's a recent interview with him ("Nonviolence of Nonmetaphysics") here and mentions of him and his work on a number of sites.

(Of course, this could all be an elaborate fiction, an invented persona and backstory, but at some point you have to trust some of the things you read. Another possibility is that someone has appropriated his name, e-mail address, and blog link; I've written him to check that he was in fact the source of the go rogue comment. Later: he has now written back to say that he was the author but that he's learned he was the victim of a prank. He apologizes for repeating misinformation, and asks that his comment be deleted — but that wouldn't really help much, now that I've posted about it.)

The upshot of all this is that I'm closing my books on sexual go rogue. I started out dubious, but now I'm convinced that it's a sheer invention. DGA is not an invention, but this story about go rogue is. Alas, the story seems to have spread, in the way that amazing stories do — probably because it digs at Sarah Palin.

On to spam. There's an OED draft entry of 2001 for spam as a verb: transitive 'to flood (a network, esp. the Internet, a newsgroup, or individuals) with a large number of unsolicited postings, or multiple copies of the same posting', intransitive 'to send large numbers of unsolicited messages or advertisements'. The first cite is from 1991, but that's from the New Hacker's Dictionary, so the word (in a non-food sense) goes back before 1991.

The OED has, at the moment, no entry for a noun spam, but that's also been around for some time.

[Added 11/18: Actually, it does have a sub-entry (a draft addition of 2001) for the computing noun spam, but it's under the main entry for Spam (the food name), where I didn't think to look. See discussion by Alex Boulton and me in the comments on this posting.]

In fact, it's been around as a mass noun ("how much spam?") and a count noun as well, meaning 'spam message, piece of spam' — a count noun that can have an ordinary s-plural ("how many spams?") or a zero plural ("how many spam?"). By 2001, when I discussed the noun in section 10 of this paper, all three of these uses were attested, and some people were using two or all three of the variants, sometimes in the same text, while other people had very strong preferences for one of the variants (I myself strongly prefer the mass variant).

(Entertaining fact: the spam filter that WordPress uses — on both Language Log and my blog — used to announce

Akismet has caught N spam for you since you first installed it. [with the zero-plural count variant]

but at some point it shifted to

Akismet has protected your site from N spam comments already … [with the noun as the first element in a noun-noun compound, a position where the count/mass distinction is normally neutralized]

The count of spam comments on Language Log is over 160,000 at the moment. Oi.)

But what counts as a spam comment? A bulk mailing of a comment, for sure. Your classic spam comment has no real content — instead, it has nothing that relates to the posting it's "commenting" on ("Great blog!"; "How can I subscribe to this blog?"; "This simply prodigy!"; "Can you explain your point?"; a URI or list of URIs; a quotation from some random work; an advertisement for some product; etc.). The point of such comments is to send the unwary reader to a commercial URI or to jack up the sender's hit count (or, of course, both). Others, in particular those that are all random gibberish, seem to be just malicious.

Spammers have gotten cleverer over the years, as I noted a while back. Comments now often seem to be tailored to some degree to the posting they're commenting on: comments linking to porn sites attached to postings with sexual content, for instance, or comments purporting to come from people the blog has mentioned, but linking to a commercial site. Some actually refer to the content of the posting ("That is an old cartoon" is a recent one on my blog, following up on a posting with a cartoon in it), but then it turns out that the URI provided is a commercial one, concerned with this content in some way (with the subject of the old cartoon, in this recent case).

It becomes increasingly difficult for bloggers to decide whether they're dealing with bulk mailings (with the targets selected by software crafted for the purpose) or with hand-crafted comments designed to send the reader to a URI or just to make mischief. As a result, many people — clearly, I am one — have extended the word spam to cover a variety of annoying, mischievous, or malicious postings and comments that might not have been mailed in bulk. Marking such postings and comments as spam for the purposes of a spam filter is then a useful step, since the malefactors are likely to repeat their offense, and one of the things spam filters are sensitive to is the sender's address. This isn't dangerous. In WordPress, the Akismet filter doesn't automatically delete things that appear in the spam queue, but merely offers them up for moderation, so misclassifications (in either direction) can be corrected.


  1. zu said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Others, in particular those that are all random gibberish, seem to be just malicious.

    I think they use them to test their scripts, your spam filter and your awareness. Random gibberish makes for a good unique identifier whose presence on a page can be detected automatically. purple monkey dishwasher

  2. D said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    I think the proper term to describe DGA's post if it hadn't been posted in sincerity would be "troll". It wouldn't be spam simply because it was a contribution to the discussion, no matter the intent.

  3. Forrest said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Alan Turing would be proud…?

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    Back in the day my band's public email address used to get spam from fictitious email addresses we used to post on our own guest book. These were invariably impossible, e.g., allanholdsworth@pant.brtl or some such nonsense, so unfortunately for the spam bot we didn't need to see the content to know it was spam. Spammers are definitely much more sophisticated these days.

  5. Nathan said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    Off-topic, but I'm interested in the word bespoke. I consider myself a well educated and widely read native speaker of American English, and I had never encountered bespoke until just a few weeks ago. Since then it seems I've read it a couple of dozen times, all online. Is this just a recency/frequency illusion?

  6. language hat said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    now I'm convinced that it's a sheer invention.

    You might add that information prominently to the earlier post, which as it stands is misleading.

  7. stormboy said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    "I consider myself a well educated and widely read native speaker of American English, and I had never encountered bespoke until just a few weeks ago."

    What about in the context of tailoring? Or computer software? (Wikipedia says that 'bespoke' is British English, so maybe that's why you weren't familiar with it?)

  8. Rubrick said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    Of course, "going rogue" is quite likely to come to mean what it was purported to mean if the story lives long enough.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    I began to encounter "bespoke" a few years ago, and have not got a handle on what it is supposed to mean. I haven't cared enough, yet, to investigate, but it tastes like an archaic, recently revived, and frequently misused word.

  10. D. Sky Onosson said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    Here's another interesting usage of "spam" that I recently came across. This is from a blog posting regarding an online game about superheroes:

    "So, you tap the block button for just a moment before you enter battle, and then while you’re beating them senseless their attacks will be keeping your energy bar full, thus letting you spam your most powerful abilities with impunity."

    I suppose the meaning here is something like "rapidly unleash"?

    The quote in context can be found on this page, in the fifth sectioned-off text box:

  11. TB said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    I'm a dressmaker/tailor and I don't believe 'bespoke' has ever gone out of use in my profession. It means that the suit in question (I've never heard it used for anything but a suit) was made from a pattern drafted specifically for the customer, as opposed to 'made-to-measure' which means altering a preexisting pattern, or of course to 'ready-to-wear'. Making a bespoke pattern means a very precise fit and that all details can be dictated by the customer.

    Just like haute couture, it's a term that's been watered down to some degree, but I think its use is regulated in England (Savile Row being the famous center of bespoke suits) just as haute couture is in France. No doubt to be truly 'bespoke' a suit must be hand-tailored in the traditional, very labor-intensive style.

  12. Nanani said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    RE: D. Sky

    The gaming use of spam, as I've encountered it, means to "use massive amounts of the same attack to the exclusion of all else". Often in a group setting, with one character spamming buffs (casting benificial status effects onto allies without pause), while the fighters attack the enemy.

    There is also the sense of spam as in "To often do something annoying"; for example "Giant Crab likes to spam poison, so bring antidotes". Poison is in most games an annoying condition that requires specific counters.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    Yes, a bespoke garment is made to measure, but the word "bespoke" literally means simply that the garment is already spoken for (though probably not yet paid for) before the tailor starts work. Here's a dictionary entry (from NZODE, minus info about pronunciation and origin, and not reproducing the use of italics here and there):

    bespeak (past bespoke, past part. bespoken (or as adj. bespoke)
    1 engage in advance 2 order (goods) 3 suggest; be evidence of (his gift bespeaks a kind heart) 4 literary speak to

  14. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

    I defer to TB on the precise meaning of "made to measure". Oops!

  15. mollymooly said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    My impression is that geek culture delights both in giving new senses to words which are themselves very new, and also in extending word senses which are very new. This may be the result of a delight in novelty or a desire to keep one step ahead of the squares who latch onto the 'old' 'new' sense. Probably this has always been true of youth culture, but has become more obvious with the internet's massively increased ability to archive ephemeral youth discourse.

  16. Alex Boulton said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    The reviewer on SkyNews yesterday morning referred to Palin's book several times as "Going Rouge" (sic). Red-faced when it was pointed out to her, she claimed she thought it was a reference to make-up (!)

  17. Alex Boulton said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Weird, my on-line access to the OED provides draft notes from 2001 for the noun spam, not the verb:


    Spam, n.

    * Computing slang. Usu. in form spam. [Compare SPAM v. 2.] Originally: irrelevant or inappropriate postings to an Internet newsgroup, esp. messages sent to a large number of newsgroups simultaneously, often for advertising purposes; an act or instance of sending such messages. Now chiefly: similar unsolicited electronic mail, esp. when sent to individuals as part of a mass-mailing.
    [1993 Los Angeles Times (Nexis) 30 Sept. J 6/1 Spam, information that might not be legitimate or real, as in ‘This rumor may have a high Spam content.’] 1994 Network World (Nexis) 30 May 2 Internet users suffered another ‘spam attack’ last week, this time from a Florida public-access host user who flooded Usenet conferences with ads for a thigh-reducing cream. 1995 New Scientist 23 Sept. 26/2 Almost all of the spams are simply deleted by the users, but enough people respond for spammers to continue the practice. 2000 Times 7 Aug. (Interface section) 4/4 Don't worry. It sounds like some stupid spam to me.

  18. Zwicky Arnold said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    To Alex Boulton: my OED on-line has a main entry for a verb spam, but not one for a noun. But now I see that there's a draft addition for a noun in the computing sense, the subentry that you quote here. The problem is that it's an added sub-entry for Spam, the main entry for which is about the food. I didn't think to look inside the Spam entry.

    I'll add a note to my original posting.

  19. C. Scott Ananian said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    Wrt bespoke: it's often used (now?) in a software context to mean exactly what it means for dressmakers: "instead of using the system collections class, J Random Hacker insisted on using his own bespoke reimplementation.". That's a redundant example; usually the use is more like "package foo has it's own bespoke list class", with an implied sigh because writing your own versions of common-as-dirt routines is usually just an invitation to introduce bugs and poor performance not present in the common (and well-tested) versions. It's also a mild indicator that the original author either didn't know of the existence of the standard library (which doesn't reflect well on his experience level), or has an inflated opinion of his programming ability (thinks his own version must be better than the standard one, often without evidence).

    Thus "bespoke" is almost always a *bad* thing in software, unlike in dressmaking. The exception proves the rule, as when a package uses it's own bespoke libraries–and surprisingly they are better.

  20. C. Scott Ananian said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    Wrt spam, I think you misunderstand the purpose of spam comments. The primary use is to inflate the google ranking of the linked site, since google uses the number of third-party links to a site as a measure of the page's significance. Being in the first page of google's search results for "sex" or "travel" or "wardrobe malfunction" or what-have-you is worth far more hits than would result from inquisitive readers of Language Log. This is a cat-and-mouse game with google, and the more "human-like" spam comments are more to fool google (so it doesn't discount the link) than they are to fool you.

    Sites will pay good money for google rank, so there are now middlemen who will sell lists of "guaranted spammable blogs". The spam comments which don't include any sort of URL (not even as links on the submitter's name or hidden with HTML tricks inside the comment text) are posted by (bots run by) these middlemen, probing for vulnerable sites they can resell.

  21. C. Scott Ananian said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Also, I'd like to plead innocence on the it's-for-its errors in my "bespoke" comment above. The iPhone insists on auto-correcting "its" to "it's" everywhere it appears, and I often don't catch its attempts to miscorrect my text in time. =( iPhone also insists on its own capitalization of its name, even sentence-initially as here.

  22. Monkey said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    Another note regarding the use of spam in a gaming context — it doesn't inherently deal with attacks per se but rather with any ability that's controlled by the subject and used repeatedly. "I was spamming my healing spell but the other player still died," is a perfectly valid use, as is, "That monster likes to spam his breath attack." I don't believe there's a requirement for annoying behavior when it's applied to an NPC (non-player character). I will, however, concede that a tendency to use a single attack to the exclusion of others is usually annoying to a player, especially when it's something that requires a special response from the player (such as in the example from Nanani regarding poisons). This is not to the exclusion of the more traditional meanings of spam in a computing context, but rather an extension of the word's meaning.

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