Monday 6 April 2009


“Mobbing,” or more precisely “Stop Mobbing!” were the words that caught my attention on the front page of my morning newspaper, NRC Next, as it dropped through the letterbox some while ago. It was so obviously an English word, I thought, and I eagerly flicked through the pages to find the article it referred to. Bullebakken op de werkvloer. The item was about workplace bullying. A recent survey carried out by TNO into employment conditions in the workplace had revealed that no less than 11% of employees in the Netherlands had at one time felt that they had been subjected to bullying by their bosses or colleagues. The article went on: “Dit heet mobbing. Naar het Engelse woord mob, meute”
That was new to me. I’d never heard of the term “to mob" ever being used in this context before, so I naturally assumed it was Dunglish (defined in Wikipedia as a combination of Dutch and English, a name for Dutch English, the Dutch speaker's version of the English language). “Mobbing” was obviously a word that someone had latched on to and thought would be a good word to use (probably because “bully” was too difficult to comprehend). Then I followed the link to the stopmobbing website, the mouthpiece of a stichting whose laudable aims are to protect the rights of everyone to respect and fair treatment in the workplace. My curiosity having been aroused, I browsed the site for further references and came across this definition:
Mobbing: Een Engelse term, afgeleid van 'The Mob': 'de maffia'; 'de meute' die zich tegen het individu keert. Mobbing is elke vorm van systematisch vijandig gedrag op de werkvloer dat gericht is tegen één specifieke medewerker. Dit kan zich uiten in pesten, morele intimidatie, seksuele intimidatie, racisme of discriminatie.
I still wasn’t convinced by the authenticity of the definition, at least in an English context. It couldn’t have been more Dunglish, I thought, even if they’d tried harder. So I googled the word “mobbing” in the expectation that it would only appear on Dutch URLs. I was wrong on that score - there was an even a mobbing-usa site (“Emotional abuse in the workplace”) and an Australian workplacemobbing site (where they also talked about “stalking”, but more about that another time).
However, I was still certain that this was a word that had entered the English word by stealth, so I continued my investigations. Eventually I found the culprit who even claimed that he had “introduced the phenomenon” (he has a lot to answer for!). The following text was written on the site of a Swedish academic called Heinz Leymann:
“…in recent years, a workplace-related psychosocial problem has been discovered, the existence and extent of which was not known earlier. This phenomenon has been referred to as "mobbing", "ganging up on someone", "bullying" or "psychological terror". In this type of conflict, the victim is subjected to a systematic, stigmatizing process and encroachment of his or her civil rights. If it lasts a number of years, it may ultimately lead to ejection from the labour market when the individual in question is unable to find employment due to mental injury sustained at the former work place. I introduced this phenomenon in 1984…”
So, it was a Swede!
Further research confirmed my own belief that the word or concept had been invented, not by an English-speaking person, but by a non-native. The Wikipedia site put the word and its definition into its right context:
“Though the English word mob denotes a group, mobbing has been adopted as a generic term for all forms of bullying in Scandinavia and German speaking parts of Europe and can be used interchangeably. However, in the English speaking world, mobbing denotes, more specifically a "ganging up" by others to harass and intimidate.”
Yes, “to mob” is an English word, but no, surprisingly perhaps, it doesn’t only have negative connotations.
For example: “the Beatles were mobbed by fans as they arrived in America for the first time”, “the Hollywood superstar, Brad Pitt was mobbed by adoring fans as he arrived at the premiere”, and (see photo above) “Federico Macheda was mobbed by his teammates as he scored a last-gasp winner against Villa”.
Hardly emotional intimidation….
Yes, English speakers may gang up on their fellow workers, they may send scabs to Coventry and give them the cold shoulder, browbeat and victimise them, but one thing they most certainly don’t do is mob them into psychological submission. We leave that to foreigners….
So next time, use your own word instead of pinching one of ours and bastardising its meaning