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sea lion also sea-lion or sealion

verb [transitive]

in an online conversation, repeatedly asking a person questions or making comments which suggest that you are interested in what they are talking about, but are actually intended to annoy them

sea lioner also sea-lioner, sealioner

noun [countable]

'I keep quiet for a number of reasons, but it's primarily out of fear. Fear of uttering an opinion only to be sea lioned into circular debates that feel engineered more to exhaust than to enlighten.'

Kotaku 24th October 2014

'Much like actual interrogators, sealioners bombard the target with question after question, digging and digging until the target either says something stupid or is so … that they react in the extreme.'

Flavorwire 24th March 2015

What do the words showroom, medal, and green have in common with sea lion? On the surface, absolutely nothing – but if you've been a keen reader of BuzzWord over the past few years, then you may know the answer …

Still scratching your head? If you're currently visualizing green medals with sea lion motifs being displayed in a showroom, then I'm afraid you're on completely the wrong track. Like the other three, sea lion is one of the latest examples of words which, via a linguistic process known as 'conversion', have recently become verbs.

sea lioning is a deliberate ploy to waste the time of the respondent who, answering questions in good faith, is only then confronted with further bouts of deliberate

Bizarre as it may seem, this large sea mammal and popular zoo attraction has now become associated with a particular type of behaviour whilst conversing online. In social media contexts, to sea lion is to jump into a discussion and ask lots of questions, repeatedly demanding answers and evidence for any assertions. Though in principle, particularly in the context of a debate, this might seem a reasonable thing to do, the crucial thing about sea lioning is that the person asking (also known as the sea lioner) isn't genuinely interested in the answers to these questions. Capitalizing on the idea that it's rude and condescending to ignore people's questions, sea lioning is a deliberate ploy to waste the time of the respondent who, answering questions in good faith, is only then confronted with further bouts of deliberate ignorance.

The age of social media seems to have thrown up a number of words describing provocative behaviour in the context of online discourse. Other examples include dogpiling, where a very large number of people respond to an individual post – a kind of harassment by overwhelming; gaslighting, where false, twisted information is deliberately given to someone in order to make them doubt their own perceptions (in fact, though recently gaining currency in the online world, this is a much older word, its origins dating back to a 1944 film entitled Gaslight, in which a man psychologically manipulates his wife); and of course trolling, where someone deliberately posts negative and provocative comments in order to entice reactions. From a slightly different perspective and used both on- and offline, another irksome speech act is the newly-coined mansplaining, in which someone (usually male) patronizingly talks to another person (usually female) as if he has superior knowledge of a subject, when in fact the reverse is usually true.

Background – sea lion

In linguistics, conversion is the situation of a word coming to belong to a new word class without the addition of an affix. If, as in the case of sea lion and the others words mentioned above, this results in a new verb, the process is also simply described as 'verbing'. Sea lion as a verb is often realized in the passive form, so frequently seen as be/get sea lioned.

So, why on earth sea lion? Though the answer might look as if it's connected with metaphoric reference and the characteristics of the animal, the term was in fact inspired by a cartoon featured in the web-based comic Wondermark, which creates humorous strips from Victorian-era drawings. In the relevant cartoon, a large sea lion continually pesters an individual for justification when he admits to not being particularly fond of sea lions.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! The downloadable pdf contains a student worksheet which includes reading activities and vocabulary-building exercises.

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This article was first published 6th October 2015.

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