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The language of fandom: from Twihards to Tolkienites

As Breaking Dawn, the film adaptation of the fourth and final Twilight novel is released, we take a look at the language of fandom.

Fandom and cultural discourse

What is it about fan culture? Why does it seem like ‘Team Edward’ vs ‘Team Jacob’ has become the biggest cultural divider since Coke vs Pepsi? How can we explain why a United States Supreme Court Justice nominee was asked to choose between the ubiquitous vampire and werewolf during a Senate confirmation hearing? And what on earth is a ‘Twi-mom?’ Twilight season is upon us again, and the return of the fervor serves only to remind us of how extensively vocal fans have helped etch the saga into mainstream public consciousness.

Twilight’s last gleaming

It’s the beginning of the end for the massively popular teen vampire series, and as the crowds flock to movie theaters all over the world to watch The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1, I find myself marveling over the impressive legacy this particular phenomenon will leave in popular culture.

According to author Stephenie Meyer, it all began as a dream about an ordinary girl and a vampire who fall in love. It then developed into four bestselling novels, and the billion-dollar film empire soon followed. Scholars and critics alike would be remiss to ignore the pervasiveness of the female gaze present in both book and movie versions, while fans of supernatural and undead folklore are likely to engage in debates about Meyer’s hotly contested contributions to vampire mythology. Twilight’s deepest impact, though, has less to do with the actual content in the series than it does with what that content has sparked: a tremendous and fervent fandom.

“Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave / A paradise for a sect”

The concept of fandom has been in existence for centuries, as we can see from the first lines of Canto I in John Keats’s poem “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream,” in which he aptly notes a paradise created by fanatics. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fandom as ‘the world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist.’ A blend of ‘fan’ and ‘domain’, it can grow out of almost anything that is enjoyed by more than one person, and the methods by which members interact with each other are as varied as the fandoms they take part in.

Well before the Internet became a primary means of communication for fandoms, newsletters, fanzines, and conventions enabled people to share their opinions about their favorite books, television shows, and movies. While these outlets still exist, the conversation has largely moved to more convenient online communities, where Web technologies allow for creativity, like fan art, fan vids, and fan fiction, to be showcased on a global scale.

Like other cultures, fandom has its own discourse—a way of communicating that is adopted by all who participate. Language plays an understandably large part, and vocabulary building and bending are common features. Most terminology is universally used cross-fandom, like shipping (rooting for individuals in the fan-appreciated work to engage in a romantic relationship), fen (the plural of fan), and fanon (like canon, but ruled by fandom laws), which makes it simple for people to belong to several communities. Other terms, like nicknames, are created because of a fandom

Got a fandom? What’s it called?

If you’ve just discovered your new favorite thing—a television show, a book, a video game—and are itching to share your opinions with someone, anyone, who can understand what you’re talking about, you will probably find yourself visiting various message boards and fan sites for like-minded enthusiasts. In some cases it might be hard to find the exact group you are looking for if you don’t know what the fandom is called; in other cases, especially if your new favorite thing is somewhat popular, someone will have already given it a name.

There is no clear rhyme or reason as to why certain fandom names follow one linguistic construction, while others adhere to completely different formations, but some patterns do arise. Portmanteau words are common for fandoms geared toward younger members. Diehard fans of Twilight have become ‘Twihards’, self-professed geeks who enjoy the television series Glee are ‘Gleeks’, and those who get a metaphorical high from the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter are known as ‘Potterheads’. For fans of a creator’s entire line of work, the suffix ‘-ite’ added to the end of his or her name is perfect because it denotes, according to the OED, ‘a disciple, follower, or adherent of a person or doctrine’. ‘Tolkienites’ love the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, a ‘Janeite’ is a Jane Austen fan, and ‘Whedonites’ follow the cult TV shows of auteur Joss Whedon. Some fandom names might have been formed out of sheer convenience, with economy and puns being key, especially when presented with fandoms for works with comparatively long titles like The Phantom of the Opera, whose fandom is abbreviated to ‘Phans’. Whoever came up with the Lost and Star Trek fandom names took an even easier route by using the same method of creating pet names, affixing the diminutive ‘-y/-ie’ to form ‘Losties’ and Trekkies. The latter is something of a hot potato among fans, with the more serious-minded apparently preferring Trekker.

A fandom name most likely becomes whatever the community agrees sounds the best. This is not, of course, objective. Doctor Who fans in the United States are commonly referred to as ‘Whovians’, while the name is generally looked down upon on the other side of the pond and beyond. For me, ‘Whovian’ conjures up the image of a resident of Dr. Suess’s fictional town, Whoville, so one’s mileage may vary when deciding on the ‘best-sounding’ name that encapsulates all that a fandom celebrates. And as for the ‘Twi-moms’, the subgroup of female Twilight fans several decades older than the target demographic, just don’t ask their embarrassed tween daughters on the midnight queue for Breaking Dawn what they think about the moniker.

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