Why Are There So Many Words About Fandom?


Whether you’re a Deadhead, Belieber, or a member of Raider Nation, extreme passion lies at the heart of all fans. Oodles of fan sites, message boards, Tumblr feeds, and those old-fashioned print newsletters help fans share the love.

Fans use language to set themselves (as a group) apart from fans of rival teams or other artists. They create catchy nicknames and make references that may seem like gobbledygook to the uninitiated. But distinct monikers and unique language fuel the beating heart of a fan group, contributing strongly to the sense of personal and social identity that fandom entails.

Fan, fandom, and fanfic foundations

The word fan is likely from fanatic, a person with “uncritical zeal and enthusiasm.” If sports fanaticism is an indication of the almost-religious intensity some forms of enthusiasm take, it’s not surprising that fanatic’s Latin origins trace to “temples,” “frantic, orgiastic rites,” insanity, and feasts. Because of its origins, the word fanaticism doesn’t necessarily carry positive connotations. Fan has a milder sentiment and broader appeal.

The urge to unite around a common passion is centuries-old, but it’s relatively recent that words like fandom (merging fan + domain), have come into play. The 1940s saw the release of the first fanzine, or amateur magazine created by fans. Pre-internet, fanzines ruled fan culture. And, even though “Sherlockians” were writing Holmes-inspired fanfic in the 1800s, the term fanfiction—where fans create new narratives for existing characters (or real-life people)—didn’t surface until the 1960s with the Star Trek craze.

What’s in a fan name?

With strong emotions involved, fans understandably want their fandoms to have bold, unique identities.

Many musicians have fandoms with military-themed names (“Britney Army,” “Rihanna Navy,” Aerosmith’s “Blue Army”), evoking fans’ fierce commitment and loyalty. Others are named for an artist’s track (Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” Christina Aguilera’s “Fighters,” or Kesha’s “Animals”). An older fan-name tactic is to add the suffix “-ite” (signifying “follower”) to a name, like “Tolkienite” (fan of J.R.R. Tolkien) or “Whedonite” (devotee of screenwriter Joss Whedon). Portmanteau words are big, like “Gleeks” (geeks for Glee) and “Beyhive” (Queen Beyoncé reins over her buzzing beehive). The diminutive “-ie” gives fan groups like “Swifties” (Taylor Swift) and “Thronies” (Game of Thrones) a cuteness that springs from adoration. And of course, add ‘”-head’” at the end and you’re bound for fandom (“Cheesehead,” “Deadhead,” “Potterhead”).

Do the fan lingo fandango

Devising unique names is only a sliver of what serious fandom entails. With so many media platforms, fans have ample and instantaneous ways to mold and reshape vocabulary to suit their particular fan genre. Some terms, though, apply across fandoms:

  • Shipping means cheering on a romantic relationship between characters or “RL” (real life) people involved in the fan-worshipped activity. The relationship you ship above all others is abbreviated “OTP,” the “one true pairing.”
  • Canons are original works created by “TPTB” (“the powers that be,” or the creator(s) behind a canon); fanons are fan-created enhancements to the original canons that are generally approved by the entire fandom. If not supported fandom-wide, an invented narrative remains a headcannon, inside the head of the fan who dreamed it up.
  • Anything related to fandom is fittingly described as fannish.
  • “BNF”? That stands for “Big-Name Fan.” We don’t want to scare you into never again saying you’re a fan of something . . . but don’t say you’re a “BNF” unless you’re a “BNF.” These are fans who are allegedly bigger and better than other fans, or at least they are people whose fanfics or opinions carry heavy weight online. Apparently being a “BNF” is a “BFD.”
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