Have you ever found yourself ‘fangirling’ over a celebrity? Which ‘fandoms’ do you belong to? Do you ‘ship’ any characters in your favourite TV show?
The word ‘fandom’ was added to our Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in December 2015, and can be used in two senses:
- to refer to the state of being a fan of something (‘25 years of fandom’)
- to refer to the fans of something as a community (‘the Twilight fandom’).
In recent years, online forums and social media sites have provided spaces where the fandoms of TV shows, bands, celebrities, books and more can go and enthuse together, whether by ranking their favourite Doctor Who companions, by writing fan fiction (works of which are also known as “fanfics” or just “fics”), or by begging their favourite band members for a retweet.
Among other things, the explosion in fandom culture has led to the creation of several new words and linguistic innovations. One of my personal favourites is the concept of shipping. ‘Ship’ is a shortened form of ‘relationship’, and when used as a verb it means (according to the Oxford English Dictionary – this one hasn’t made it into our Learner’s Dictionaries yet) ‘support or have a particular interest in a romantic pairing between two characters in a fictional series, often when this relationship is one portrayed by fans rather than depicted in the series itself’. From this, we get ‘ship names’, which are names for real or imaginary couples formed by blending the names of the two characters, or sometimes celebrities, in question. The Harry Potter fandom alone has given the world such gifts as ‘Drarry’, ‘Hinny’, ‘Dramione’ and ‘Bellamort’ (I’ll leave you to work out which characters each of those refers to), while ‘Brangelina’ is a more old school – and now obsolete – example.
Fangirls and fanboys
The words ‘fangirl’ and ‘fanboy’ aren’t technically new – the Oxford English Dictionary records that ‘fanboy’ was first used in 1919 and ‘fangirl’ in 1934. However, these terms have enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, as the rise of Internet fandom has spawned a new breed of fans whose passionate commitment to their fandom of choice goes above and beyond the usual admiration from a distance. The revival of the terms ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ seems to reflect a need to label these extreme enthusiasts as something other than mere fans.
While adding -boy or -girl to the end of a word can often just mean that the person being referred to is a child (e.g. schoolgirl, choirboy), in this case the fans being referred to are often adults, and so the suffix could be seen as infantilizing – it suggests that their enthusiasm is immature, and that they are behaving like overexcited children or teenagers. Looking at real-world examples of the usage of both words, I came across many instances where they were used in a very negative and condescending way: fangirl was often preceded by words such as ‘rabid’ and ‘creepy’, and fanboy by ‘desperate’ and ‘pathetic’, suggesting that these more extreme fans are often viewed with strong disapproval.
It’s interesting that an originally gender-neutral word, ‘fan’, has come to be assigned suffixes that differentiate fans by their gender. The examples I looked at pointed to a clear difference in the way the two words were used. The word ‘fangirl’ mostly came up in relation to celebrities, especially boy bands, and to TV and book series. ‘Fanboy’, on the other hand, was often used about those expressing strong loyalty to certain software and technology brands (the examples in the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary entry refer to ‘a Nintendo fanboy’ and ‘Linux fanboys’), and about fans of the stereotypically nerdy side of popular culture, such as comics, video games and sci-fi. Interestingly, men expressing excitement about celebrities were sometimes described as ‘fangirling’ rather than ‘fanboying’, suggesting that the object of the fandom or the way it is expressed may matter more than the gender of the fan. ‘Fangirl’ often seems to be used to refer to a more overexcited and frivolous sort of fan than ‘fanboy’ – the kind who speaks in SHOUTY CAPITALS and takes any opportunity to ‘squee’ (‘Squeal in delight or excitement’, according to the OED). Dismissive or derogatory uses of ‘fangirl’ could be seen to carry sexist undertones, reinforcing old stereotypes of women – and especially young women – as hysterical and irrational.
However, there’s evidence to suggest that the connotations of the word are shifting. Some of the more recent examples of usage I found showed ‘fangirl’ being used in a much more positive way (“when I call it the nerdy fangirl network, it’s a compliment”), or simply as a neutral term (“She’s amazing, I’m a huge fangirl of hers”), indicating that many people are now happy to embrace the word and define themselves as fangirls. A young adult novel entitled Fangirl which portrayed a self-proclaimed fangirl in a sympathetic and subtle way was published a few years ago, and may have helped to turn the tide for this much-abused word. I, for one, am all for letting our inner fangirls run wild – after all, a little squeeing never hurt anyone.
Fangirl is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.
Laura Shanahan is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP earlier this year, she studied French and Italian at university, and spent a year abroad teaching English in Italy. She has also worked at a translation agency, a bookshop and a library. She can often be found fangirling over fictional characters.