Free the Word: fam
In this final blog post in the Free the Word series, OED associate editor Eleanor Maier explores ‘fam’, London’s chosen word and subject of a poem by Caleb Femi.
fam n. a familiar form of address for a friend.
Armistead Maupin writes in his Tales of the City series about the difference between a person’s biological family and what he calls their ‘logical family’, the people who you choose to spend time with and who make you feel safe and supported. Although friends and family can be contrasted in this way, there is also a continuum between the two categories in which love, closeness, and loyalty are a common feature. This continuum is reflected in the extended meanings attached to many kinship terms.
Examples include ‘aunt’ and ‘auntie’ which are used to refer to an unrelated female family friend and, in many varieties of English, as a respectful term for any older woman. Similarly ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ have acquired several extended senses which emphasize affection, shared experience, or solidarity. ‘Brother’, in turn, has given rise to a large number of related words including ‘buddy’, ‘bro’, ‘brer’ (as in Brer Rabbit), and ‘bruv’ (which is now ubiquitous in some parts of the UK) and this whole family of words is explored more fully in the following blog post. ‘Bro’ has been particularly productive giving rise to a host of often ephemeral neologisms, including, most enduringly, ‘bromance’, which literally blend the notions of kinship and affection in the context of a non-familial relationship.
A relatively recent addition to such words, ‘fam’, relates to ‘family’ itself. Like ‘bro’ it is first recorded in the sixteenth century as a graphic abbreviation of ‘family’ (in various senses), meaning that although written as ‘fam.’ it would have been pronounced as the full word. Several hundred years later in the United States another colloquial sense emerges in which ‘fam’ is used in spoken and written English to refer to, or address, one’s family or relations. The earliest example of this use we have found so far is in a transcript of a 1990 episode of the television programme CBS This Morning: ‘We’ve got the whole family here every day. There we go. Hi, fam.’
‘Fam’ is used to refer not just to one’s actual family but to any person’s close friends or trusted associates as in the 2002 novel A Hip-hop Story by Heru Ptah: ‘Here is ma man Reaper… He’s new to the fam, but he is Cannibal at heart. Brooklyn born.’ and the following example from the British play Inside by Philip Osment in a passage which uses a number of kinship terms in both a literal and extended sense:
Bro, you’re the nearest thing I got to a Dad… You were my big brother, my hero, but then you weren’t there no more… So I went out and found other brothers. They cared about me. My bredren. People my own age who understood what it felt like to be me. That was my fam. They made me feel like I mattered.
Within a short space of time ‘fam’ has undergone a further development, being used, like ‘bro’ and ‘bruv’, as a form of address for a close friend or member of one’s peer group (as in this 2003 interview with the rapper Nat Turner: ‘Big [i.e. Biggie Smalls] was like, “Yo, fam, you nice. Make sure you call me tomorrow!”’). This usage was originally particularly associated with the hip-hop subculture in the United States (as can be seen in some of the examples in The Right Rhymes, an online historical dictionary of hip-hop). However, now ‘fam’ as a form of address has made its way across the Atlantic and is increasingly common in the speech of young Londoners:
“Yo fam, Nando’s are tryna bag me. Allow me to hide in your yard quick?” pic.twitter.com/glf4IjT6WO
— T🏂 (@TopsFrsh) May 4, 2014
Zidane: Why’s Owen here? 😂
Ronaldo: I dunno fam, thought you invited him 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/phtFQrtG2n
— Wesley Brown 🇯🇲🦁 (@YungKakarot) January 9, 2017