“Fan fiction” added to Merriam-Webster

[no-glossary]Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary recently released its new additions for 2009 (you can see them here), and for those of us who work on OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, one new term stands out: fan fiction. You could hear our whoops of joy across town. Language geek that I am, I immediately tweeted and e-mailed all my friends in a frenzy of happiness. Not only had MW finally added the term to their lexicon, thereby acknowledging its importance to popular culture, but the styling I preferred was confirmed!

It’s taken awhile (the term has been around since 1944, MW informs us), but at long last, fan fiction has been defined by an authoritative source—and for those employed in the U.S. publishing industry, it is the authoritative source; no other dictionary will do. MW defines the term as “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet.” The entry concludes with the note that it is “called also fan fic,” which is intriguing because this term is also styled as two words, although it does not have its own entry.

When I wrote the first style sheet for TWC, I struggled with the styling of this common term. I really, really agonized about it. Ought it be fan fiction or fanfiction, the latter a styling that certainly got plenty of usage? In the end, I styled fan fiction as two words, precisely because it was not in MW. (If a potentially compound word is not in the dictionary, then it is styled as two words rather than solid.) I saw the term as two words in print but as one word on the Internet—but online, it seemed to always end up referring specifically to fanfiction.net rather than just being a generic version of the term.

In addition to fan fiction, TWC (against OTW’s house style, you may have noticed) styles most fan words as two words rather than one: fan art, fan artwork, fan vid, fan film. Mostly this is a result of the two-words rule, as none of these other potentially compound words is in the dictionary. But mostly TWC decided to treat fan terms as two words because fan is not a prefix. Turning the two words into one elides the active work of the fan by making the entire word about the artwork: it’s fan fiction, a piece of fiction actively created by a fan. Styling fan fiction as two words foregrounds the active process of creation and keeps us—writers, artists, vidders, fans—in the linguistic picture.[/no-glossary]

9 thoughts to ““Fan fiction” added to Merriam-Webster”

  1. Is it some sort of critical mass that makes a term with a nearly 70 year history finally rise to the status that meets Merriam-Webster’s inclusion criteria?

    As with all things fannish, I’m of two minds about the inclusion of “fan fiction” in mainstream cultural awareness. On the one hand it’s kind of cool and validating, but on the other hand, when fandom becomes mainstream, is it really fandom anymore as we know it?

    As to the styling, I like your reasoning and don’t disagree with it in concept, but it will always be fanfic to me. That said, with your styling in mind, I may be more careful to call it just “fic” going forward.

    1. Is it some sort of critical mass that makes a term with a nearly 70 year history finally rise to the status that meets Merriam-Webster’s inclusion criteria?

      Who knows? I wondered this too. I also want to know where they got that 1944 date. I’d love to know who was talking about fan fiction in 1944.

      it will always be fanfic to me

      Me too, but now that MW has spoken I will start using fan fic. Actually TWC uses fan fiction but fanfic. However, now that MW has specified a preference, we will go with two words.

      I really think individuals should style the term however they want. MW is a descriptive, not prescriptive dictionary: if enough people and publications start using other terms, then MW will change the entry to reflect current usage. I personally am waiting for them to restyle Web site to website.

  2. Understandably, now that the two-word formulation is used in Merriam Webster, you’ll want to be using that in order to be taken seriously by outside readers, but some of the reasoning presented for doing so before this was the case raises some questions from me.

    The fact that it is considered proper to write a possible compound word not in the dictionary as two words is certainly understandable. It is the other reasoning presented that raises my eyebrows.

    While it is very nice to take into account the foregrounding of the creator etc, is this really valid if it fails to take into account how the word is used by the people who actually do the activity? Choosing a relatively rare spelling for its positive social implications seems reminiscent of such well-intentioned awkwardness as womyn and wimmin, while at the same time unintentionally patronizing and disrespectful of the very fans it means to honor by disregarding their own common usage.

    1. is this really valid if it fails to take into account how the word is used by the people who actually do the activity?

      This is a great point, and it’s one I thought about when I wrote the style sheet, because TWC is in a position to break ground on the styling of certain fan terms. As I noted in the comment above, MW is a descriptive, not prescriptive, dictionary: it reflects current usage. MW styled it as two words because that is how they saw it, and they did the research for us. But because they are descriptive, they will change it if common usage changes. (I have seen them do this; notably, between MW 10th and 11th, they lost the umlaut over the i in naive.)

      I would not say that styling as fan fiction instead of fanfiction is rare, even among fans as opposed to printed sources. I see both all the time, and it’s one reason I went traditional and followed the two-word rule. The two-word styling is appropriate because TWC is the face of OTW that aims to communicate with outsiders. We’re also an academic publication, and the standards there incline toward formality. Note that OTW, which is targeted to fans, styles many fan words solid.

      In addition, one important element when choosing style for a publication is simplicity. To ensure consistency across documents with ten people on the production team, we style virtually everything according to a printed source: MW and Chicago 15. Our style mantra is, Look it up. It avoids all kinds of arguments with authors while ensuring consistency across multiple documents by people from diverse fan backgrounds who may or may not speak English as their first language.

      1. Oh, of course now that Merriam Webster has chosen a usage, obviously that is the one you should use for such publications. And as I said, the general rule of if not in the dictionary use as two words didn’t bother me, just the idea that one might choose a spelling in house style in order to make a social statement rather than strictly surveying for most common usage or following rules of formal grammar.

        1. Oh, we make such social statements all the time, although we may not know we’re doing it! It seems as good a criterion as any other, and maybe better (like, don’t offend the people you’re talking about—one I see all the time, inadvertently, in the medical writing that I edit).

          When I had to decide the style point for TWC, I chose expedience over social statements, but I was also aware that by choosing a particular form of the term, I was making a social statement. That’s why I was agonizing so much about it.

      2. MW is a descriptive, not prescriptive, dictionary: it reflects current usage. MW styled it as two words because that is how they saw it, and they did the research for us.

        I wondered about that. A simple google search gives me 1,120,000 results for “fan fic” (with fanfic being among the first results) and 4,760,000 hits for “fanfic”. I wouldn’t be surprised if their research reflected the current usage in publications about fanfiction which might not actually be representative for current usage by people involved in the activity.

        1. I can’t speak to MW’s criteria, because I don’t know what they are, but I suspect they are looking at print sources rather than doing a simple googling. This would result in a skewing to the more formal presentation preferred in print. And for an academic publication like TWC, that makes sense to me.

          (I personally like fan fiction but fanfic.)

        2. You know, it would almost HAVE to be print vs. online, because no way would it still be Web site and not website in the dictionary if it wasn’t! Ironically, its going to the the movement of scholarship online (through journals like TWC proving themselves of a sufficiently high standard) as well as more journalism moving online (more Slates, etc) that changes it and turns webspeak into accepted vernacular use.

          So it’s a catch 22–TWC has to speak “respectable” to be serious enough to have the ability to eventually change the standards toward our own subcultural ones. Such are the annoying and inevitable compromises of liberal politics, I fear. *g*

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