But the closest historical parallel to “catfishing” also comes from the silver screen. In George Cukor’s 1944 mystery thriller “Gaslight” (which followed a play and an earlier film adaptation), a man (Charles Boyer) tries to convince his new wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she is going insane, in order to steal her fortune. The movie title inspired a new verbal noun, “gaslighting,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”
Why do we keep returning to dramatic touchstones to label such real-world double-dealing? (“Catfish,” though a documentary, has the feel of a ripping yarn, so much so that some have questioned whether scenes were staged.) When an account like Te’o’s surfaces, it can seem stranger than fiction. It makes sense, then, that we fall back on the language of storytellers to describe these true-life dramas of deception.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.