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Fanspeak: The Lingo of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fandom

Lauren, Publicity Assistant

We were thrilled when Brave New Words won the Hugo Award. And we were overwhelmed with excitement when Jeff Prucher, freelance lexicographer and editor for the Oxford English Dictionary’s science fiction project, revisited the blog with his picks of words that may seem to come from science, but really originate in science fiction. Now that Brave New Words is available in paperback, we’ve asked Jeff to write for us yet again. Below are his picks of mainstream words with fannish pedigrees, as coined by science fiction and fantasy fans.

Previously, I discussed words coined in works of science fiction that one might think came from the sciences instead. This time, I’m going to look at words coined by science fiction (and fantasy) fans which have entered the broader lexicon. Specifically, these are terms that are part of what is sometimes called fanspeak, the lingo of science fiction and fantasy fandom. This is probably not an exhaustive list, since definitions of what constitutes fanspeak, and what “entering the broader lexicon” actually means are open to different interpretations. I present these in no particular order:

1. Fanzine. This is one of the most successful terms coined by SF fans, and has gone from referring specifically to amateur periodicals relating (however vaguely) to science fiction and fantasy, to periodicals for fans of just about anything you care to name. The term has been around since at least 1940 in SF fandom, and since at least the 1960s in general use. (The earliest clear citation I’ve found for a non-SF usage is from 1968, which is almost certainly too late.)

2. Fanmag. This is another (of many) term that SF fans used to describe fanzines. It’s less common (I haven’t seen it in any mainstream dictionaries), but has also been used for non-SF zines.

3. Which leads me to zine, the other big success story. Zine was originally just a synonym of fanzine, but sometime in the late Twentieth Century, it was adopted to describe amateur publications of all sorts, not just those limited to one fandom or another, and an entire subculture has grown up around the publication of these zines. Zine can also be used as a suffix, to denote a particular type of zine (such as newszine, a zine that publishes primarily news, or mimeozine, a zine that is produced with a mimeograph machine). SF fans used the suffix profligately, and most coinages have stayed within fanspeak, but a few of the -zine words have seeped into wider zine culture as well, notably perzine (short for personalzine, a zine published by a single person, and often containing personal, journal-like content) and crudzine (a cruddy zine).

4. Completism. The desire to possess all of a set of something. Someone afflicted with completism is a completist. These originally referred primarily to the collection of books and magazines (which is pretty much what there was available to collect in the early days of SF fandom), and is now applied to comics, music, you name it.

5. –con. Another suffix. This shows up in the names of conventions and conferences. In use in SF fandom since at least 1942, this spread to related fandoms such as comics and role-playing games, and is now reasonably common in the names of other types of conventions, particularly computer and tech-related ones.

6. ish. An issue (of a magazine or fanzine). My own family has used this shortening for years, and we were completely oblivious to the existence of SF fandom when I was growing up, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this has an SFnal origin. What hasn’t made it into the broader lexicon is the use of ish as a combining form, in words like nextish, lastish, even thish (the next, last, and current issues of a magazine or fanzine, respectively).

7. fan fiction. Most people outside of the fanfic community probably think (if they think about it at all) that fan fiction is the exclusive domain of SF and fantasy fans. While this was once true, it’s certainly not true any more, and both the name and some of the associated terminology of fan fiction originated in SF fandom. Some of these associated terms are slash (fiction that depicts a sexual relationship between two characters) and Mary Sue (a character that acts out a blatant wish-fulfillment of the author or a story featuring such a character), both of which originated in Star Trek fandom. Curiously, fan fiction was originally used to refer to amateur fiction written about fans themselves, rather than amateur fiction written using the characters or settings of an existing work.

8. sci-fi. This is probably the most contentious word in the fannish vocabulary. It was coined as a simple shortening of science fiction by Forrest J Ackerman, by analogy to hi-fi, and originally had no particular connotations. The term eventually came to be viewed with opprobrium by many fans, however, probably in large part due to its perceived overuse by outsiders, especially the mainstream media. It can sometimes serve as a shibboleth, as well, and in some contexts will identify the user as an outsider. (Despite this, many fans have always happily used the term sci-fi; as I said, it’s contentious.) The term has also undergone reanalysis in the SF community, and can now be used to refer specifically to bad SF (especially movies and television shows); in this sense it is usually pronounced “skiffy.”

Recent Comments

  1. […] Follow this link: Fanspeak: The Lingo of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fandom : OUPblog […]

  2. […] time I’m blogging about fanspeak terms that got picked up in non-fannish contexts: https://blog.oup.com/2009/06/fanspeak/. (This overlaps to some degree with an earlier post here, but I think the info is interesting […]

  3. Maia Cheli-Colando

    Jeff –

    Nice blog post! I wonder to what extent regional differences (and perhaps the age of the speaker/audience) play a part in the debate over sci-fi? I confess I’ve always used the term. And, I am amused by the new pronunciation. If I write poorly, will you then accuse me of skiffing? :)

    I grew up next door to Clarion, and in college I worked at Curious (a comic-and-book-store with a heavy sff bias and Clarion students on staff); we all used the term then. So the “outsider alert” perplexes me a tad. (Politics, in science fiction fandom? )


  4. steve davidson

    Specifically in regards to “sci fi” (which term I personally use as a negative) and its on-going evolution:

    I have two Google news alerts, one for “science fiction” and one for “sci fi” that I’ve had going for almost two years now and, at least by Google’s measure, the two are becoming more and more distinct. The first most often is used to refer to literary SF (and “good” SF), while the second increasingly refers strictly to media SF – television, movies, comics, mass-appeal media events &etc.

    It seems to me that this evolution is leading to the following three definitions:
    Science Fiction – “real” SF on paper (and secondarily, always “good”/well-perceived science fiction)
    Sci Fi – media SF, SF for the masses
    Skiffy – bad SF of any type

  5. Lauren

    That’s a good point, Steve. I feel like I’ve seen that happening too. I can’t remember the last time I actually heard the full “science fiction” when someone was talking about a book.

  6. […] of how different social groups use language to cement their in-group status, then have a look here for expressions used by fans of science fiction and […]

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  8. Charles Wells

    One word that was common in sf fandom in the 1950’s when I was active was “gafia” — “get away from it all”, complete with verb gafiate. It seems to seep out of fandom and be used by other young people we know. It was a useful word because it didn’t imply taking a vacation or any other formal arrangement — just bumming out, as another subculture would have it.

  9. ruthiechan

    This was a neat article to read. Have you ever seen the Fan Speak definitions compiled together by Jon D. Swartz? You can see it here: http://www.fandominion.com/fan-speak

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