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Catfishing is the term used for anyone stealing other people's identities on the internet, so they can pretend to be someone they're not (mainly on dating websites) with the aim of tricking others into going out with them.

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The example phrase given was something I heard from friend while speaking about this topic which almost led into a more dragged out discussion on whether someone who is catfishing on the internet should be called "A catfish" as in "You look like A catfish" (using the word as a noun) or whether the word catfish should only be used as an (adjective) as in "You look catfish".

What do you guys think? Can the word catfish be used as both a noun and an adjective?

You look catfish(y)!

You look like a catfish!

To me saying someone looks like "A catfish" is like saying that someone "looks like A gorgeous." it just doesn't sound right.

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I believe the most appropriate phrase would be:

You look like a catfisher.

That is, you look like a person who catfishes.

The sentence "You look like a catfish" just makes me think someone is being compared to an actual catfish, likely as commentary about their mouth or facial hair.

If you want to use the verb, a "-y" or "-ey" suffix is typically added to make the verb into an adjective.

You look jumpy.

You look catfishy.

"You look catfishy" could also be a pun, as "[noun] looks fishy" or "[noun] smells fishy" is a very common saying that means something seems deceitful.

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    Catfish as a noun was the original term, and the verb came later. There is no need to "nounify" the verb, any more than someone who engages in trolling should be called a troller rather than a troll. – Acccumulation Apr 29 at 15:03
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    @Acccumulation That's a fair point, although the use of catfish as a noun for this purpose causes a lot of ambiguity with an actual catfish. Where I grew up could certainly be a factor, but I immediately associate "catfish" with the species of catfish, not the online-only context-sensitive definition. Therefore, using the verb form might be safer in this case, even if the noun version came first. – CrescentSickle Apr 29 at 15:47
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    I think “catfisher” works better and the parallel with trolling isn’t quite accurate. We can say “my nets are full of catfish”, but I would make troll plural (“My nets are full of trolls”). I’ve seen it used in articles online as well “In his MTV show, Schulman continues searching for answers from 'catfishers' that he unites with victims of their schemes.“ – ColleenV Apr 29 at 16:54
  • @Acccumulation Do you have an example of the use of Catfish as a noun in this sense? – Monty Harder Apr 29 at 20:37
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This is a very new use of a word, and doubtless the usage is in flux.

It seems that the first use was as a verb. "To catfish" (often in form "catfishing") meaning to deceive by the use of fake images on a dating site. It is sometimes used to mean "to be deceived". It should be compared with the existing term "phishing", and the non-internet meaning of "to catfish" = to angle for catfish.

It is also used as a noun, meaning "a person who catfishes". The BBC has examples of all three usages

It's easy to copy someone's pictures and set up a fake online account - a phenomenon known as catfishing.

The Circle's Dan 'furious' after catfishing

...BBC reporter Jennifer Meierhans became a catfish victim...

The BBC don't use "catfish" as an adjective. In the last example it is a noun used attributively. There are a small number of examples on instagram in which it does seem to be used as an adjective. But often it seems to be an error, or referring to the fish, not the social media troll.

So, for me, "You look like a catfish" would be acceptable, but "You look catfish" would not be acceptable.

However the use of new words is often unstable and may change.

  • I upvoted for "this is a new use," "the usage is in flux," and "unstable and may change." – J.R. Apr 29 at 18:23
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As a general pattern, you can't say "you look X" where X is something other than an actual adjective, even if that something-else looks like or functions like an adjective in other contexts. For example:

  • You look running. vs "A running person"
  • You look baby. vs "A baby bird"
  • ...

As noted by James K, in this case catfish isn't adjective-like at all; it's used as "a noun used attributively". But even if it were, it wouldn't work.

Note that there may be specific "exceptions" to this rule I've put forth, but from an ELL context you should just assume you can't do it unless there are specific exceptions you've found. Trying to do it with a word that's not an exception will definitely sound broken to someone who hears/reads it.

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As a native speaker, first, I agree with CrescentSickle's statement that "You look like a catfish" would be understood to mean that the addressee looks like an actual catfish. I would never say this to someone on a dating site, or on an in-person date, even if I thought it was true, because it would be really insulting. I might say it to a friend who trusted me to give them an honest opinion regarding a changeable aspect of their appearance: "Yes, your mustache makes you look like a catfish, you should shave it."

Second, if I was chatting someone up on a dating site and I thought they were catfishing me, that would mean they haven't shown me real photos of themselves and therefore I don't know what they look like. So it would be weird to say "You look like you are catfishing" or "You look like a catfisher" or anything like that. Rather, it would be their photos or the content of their site profile that made me suspicious. So I would talk about it in those terms: "These photos look awfully polished, are you catfishing me?"

  • I think the statement, "You look like a catfish" would be understood in the way you describe without additional context. And, even though I'd be unlikely to say to someone directly, "You look like a catfish," I wonder if there is anything amiss with that noun usage. After all, someone might say, "This person seems like a catfish," particularly if it was preceded by something like: "I need some advice here. You know what they say about things that seem too good to be true? I'm starting to doubt someone I've been talking to – this person seems like a catfish." – J.R. Apr 29 at 18:20
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    I wouldn't say "this person looks like a catfish". I would say "this situation looks like a catfish" – Timbo Apr 29 at 18:27

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