"Flaming", in the context of online interactions, refers to hostile and rude behavior of one user toward another. More recently the term "trolling" has come to mean similar things, though in my experience "flaming" is more about a particular episode (reasonable users might flame sometimes), while "trolling" is about a pattern of behavior (certain users are trolls). But this question isn't about trolling; I'm interested in the history of flaming.

Wikipedia describes the early history, saying that it arose in the early 1980s and possibly from unnamed east-coast (US) engineering schools. It suggests that the term might originate with the Hacker's Dictionary, published in 1983, but I know from personal experience that the term was in use on the ARPANet at least by 1981. (Also, the Hacker's Dictionary was reactive, describing terms that were already in use, not prescriptive.) I happen to have been a student at an "east-coast engineering school" at the time, but I had the impression that the term came from "outside", on the ARPANet or Usenet -- we didn't originate it.

So my question is: how did this term, and the identification of the behavior it names, come about and spread? Was it a meme that spread gradually, or did somebody high-profile coin the term and everybody started using it, or what? On what networks did it originate?

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    This question is a trial balloon; see is history of moderation on-topic? on meta. Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 18:35
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    my recollection is that the noun flame (a post with "more heat than light") and the related flame war (a series of such posts back and forth) came first, and that flamer, flaming and so on are built from that. You might try looking for "flame mail" since some of these cultural expressions arose on mailing lists first. Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang (1973) gives this definition for flamer:

A person, incident, or thing very conspicuous, unusual, or vigorous; e.g. as in Cockton's Valentine Vox, 1840,
a stiff criticism: ca 1808-1900

So, usage close to the modern sense may be quite old.

However, Google Books suggests that flaming-related terms didn't really catch on until the early 90's (which is when I remember them from, but I only had a little exposure to 1970's DARPANet): Flame war usage

Note that usage of "Flamer" had a mini peak in the 1980's, but this seems to mostly be about an agricultural tool and about people and ships with that proper name.

If "Flaming" was used in networks in the 1970's, it may have derived from "Flameout", which was much discussed in the aviation and military communities in the '60s and '70s (graph below).
In a plane, a "Flameout" was often caused by too much pressure, was an impressive sight, and often led to crashing and burning. Men in fits of temper were said to "Flame out" and this often led to their careers crashing and burning.


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    Oh, I didn't know about the history of "flameout" -- thanks! I suspect that's related, yes. Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 13:10
  • The link in your last paragraph goes to the ngram you also included. From context I think you meant to link something else? Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 14:37
  • That link was also meant to reference the last plot (for people who want to verify and experiment) and also as credit for Google. I'm not sure it would be ethical to use a partial screen grab from a Google tool without linking to the source. But I guess it's not clear that the link is also the reference for the plot?
    – BHA
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 17:57
  • Ah, I see. I thought from the text that it would be a link to something specific about the aviation & military communities, so wondered if the Google link was a cut&paste error. I agree that it's proper to link to the Google page here. Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 18:04

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