LINGUIST List 2.294

Friday, 14 June 1991

Disc: Flaming

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Margaret Fleck, flaming
  2. , Flaming and common rooms

Message 1: flaming

Date: Tue, 11 Jun 91 11:36:38 BST
From: Margaret Fleck <>
Subject: flaming
In reply to (Elise Morse-Gagne')'s [well, how ELSE am I supposed to
spell it?] query on "flaming": you seem to have gotten the basic idea
of the term correct. It is originally computer science jargon and has
been very commonly used in that community for some time. Like certain
other useful words (e.g. "kludge"), it seems to be spreading to a
wider community. The MIT/Stanford/WPI jargon dictionary (version of
ca. 1985) defines it as follows:

FLAME v. To speak incessantly and/or rabidly on some relatively
 uninteresting subject or with a patently ridiculous attitude.
 FLAME ON: v. To continue to flame. See RAVE.

The metaphor of fire is still very much alive. I remember one
incident at MIT where someone brought a fire extinguisher to a
facilities meeting in case there was excessive flaming. Apparently
there are a series of more recent coinages of terms "asbestos X"
("asbestos longjohns") used to protect oneself against flames while
reading e.g. network newsgroups, but I've only heard about these

It is well-known among the computer science community that discussions
on electronic mail/newsgroups tend to degenerate into flaming. The
basic problem seems to be that feedback is very slow: if you ask
another participant what he intended, you may not find out for hours
or days. However, people tend to treat the medium as if it were a
conversation, rather than like an exchange of letters or journal
articles. In particular, it is easy to reply to postings immediately,
and people often do so in order to clear their mailboxes. The result
is often a sequence of misunderstandings, frustration, and consequent

The result is rather like sitting in the back of a talk in which the
speaker is saying lots of things you disagree with. As there's a
limit to what can be brought up in questions at the end of the talk,
we've all had the experience of sitting and stewing, writing notes to
the person in the next seat, and flaming to our friends in the
corridor afterwards. Now, suppose that we recorded your pent-up
thoughts and played them back to the speaker after the talk. And then
he got to reply ...

Another analogy would be to suppose that the main linguistics journals
had an instant reply service. That is, as you finish reading the
latest spectacularly irritating article by [name your favorite bete
noir], you could scribble down your thoughts and have them appear
instantly in print, without editorial review.

In real conversations, these problems are usually avoided by asking
frequent questions. In journals, they are avoided by honing the prose
into something that is difficult to misunderstand.

Margaret Fleck (
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Message 2: Flaming and common rooms

Date: Wed, 12 Jun 91 18:06:30 EDT
From: <>
Subject: Flaming and common rooms
Several people asked about the words `flaming' and `(senior) common
room'. To avoid cluttering this list, if you want (my) definitions,
drop me a line.

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