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Introduction
Business English: Writing e-mails
UK version  US version

New word of the month
Mailbomb, virus, worm, Trojan horse, nastygram, mockingbird.
Find out what these words have in common.

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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

mailbomb verb [I,T]
to send, or encourage others to send, very large amounts of e-mail to a single computer system or person, intending to cause problems for the recipient's computer system

mailbomb noun [C]
mailbombing noun [U]
mailbomber noun [C]

Many of us will have heard of the word spam in the context of electronic mail and the Internet (unwanted e-mails that are sent to large numbers of people). The term spamming has been coined to refer to this as an activity and a spammer is a person who engages in the practice. So from the irritation of spam we now move up a gear into the potential for e-mail sabotage. To mailbomb is to deliberately attempt to cause disruption in another computer system by directing massive amounts of e-mail to it. If successful, this has the potential to exhaust the disk space of the victim's computer (or at least fill up the space allocated to the mailbox), or to cause the recipient's computer to spend a large proportion of its time processing mail.

Mailbombing in a professional IT environment is considered a very serious offence, since it not only inconveniences the intended victim but also other innocent users and administrators of the computers and networks involved, disrupting all e-mail traffic. A mailbomb is sometimes used in an attempt to retaliate against someone who persistently violates netiquette (a term based on a blend of the words network and etiquette, referring to a set of rules governing polite ways of behaving when using e-mails or the Internet).

The verb mailbomb has various derivatives, including the nouns mailbombing for the activity and mailbomb for the e-mail sent in order to invoke this. A perpetrator of this activity is referred to as a mailbomber, eg: You're wide open to some malicious mailbomber firing e-mails at you by the thousand! The term mailbomber is not always used in negative contexts however, it can simply refer to a device which enables a user to send out large numbers of e-mails simultaneously for speed and convenience.

Background

Origins of the term mailbomb are most likely connected with the idea of a letter bomb, a letter with a small explosive device hidden inside and used with malicious or terrorist intent.

As a solid compound, the term letterbomb is also used in Internet speak with the same meaning as the noun mailbomb. However it is more usually used to refer to an e-mail message containing live data intended to disrupt a recipient's computer, for example by locking up a computer terminal when it is viewed so that the user has to turn off and restart the terminal in order to continue working.

Various other terms have been coined for programs mediated by e-mail which intend to disrupt computer systems, including the well-known virus or worm. Others include Trojan horse (a program that is disguised as something useful, eg: something which finds and destroys viruses, but is in fact designed to be harmful), a nastygram (a lexical variant for letterbomb), and a mockingbird (something which intercepts communications between users and hosts and sends out fake responses).

Mailbombing is such an acknowledged problem in cyberspace that various related compounds can be sourced on the Internet; for instance many citations can be found for the concept of mailbomb protection, and there are several web sites dedicated to the promotion of mailbomb early warning systems.

Mailbomb can function as a superordinate term for specific kinds of e-mail bombardment, eg: a hyponym is list-bomb: to mailbomb someone by forging messages which subscribe them to a large amount of computer-controlled mailing lists.

Not to be confused with the noun mailbomb is the term mail storm, noun [C]. This is used to refer to a situation where a computer system with an Internet connection and active users has not been operational for some time, and then reconnects, resulting in a flood of incoming mail which clogs up the system.