Site name and logo


Pronounced /fæn/Help with pronunciation

Our television went phut this week. With a timing that must surely indicate a highly developed technological empathy, the poor old thing died almost at the moment at which the teams were running out for the first match in the 1998 World Cup. You will no doubt understand that our family does not support football (soccer if you prefer), a circumstance almost inconceivable to the thousands of fans battling strikes and ticket shortages to see their teams play in France.

As a bonus topical aside, the origin of this odd word soccer lies in a bit of British public schoolboy slang of the end of last century. There were then two forms of football. One was rugby football, the one that uses the oval ball that you were allowed to pick up and run with, named after the public school where it originated. In short rugby, it was informally termed rugger, the -er ending then being a common way to form slangy terms. The other kind, under the rules of the Football Association, was formally named association football. A short form of this was obviously essential, and it was shortened in imitation of rugger by taking the second syllable of association and adding the -er ending to form soccer. No doubt the apparent association with the verb sock, “to hit”, helped it to become popular.

Back to the point. Fan is assumed by dictionaries to be an abbreviation of fanatic, though there seems to be no evidence of any intermediate stages of development of the one from the other. It suddenly turns up in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century as a word for an enthusiastic and regular supporter of baseball. Soon after it was extended to other sports and then this century to other activities.

Such enthusiastic supporters probably neither know nor care that, according to the original sense of fanatic, they are actually supposed to be wild about religion (though for some of them it seems to be an adequate substitute). The word derives from the Latin fanaticus, “of or relating to a temple”, which could also be used of somebody who was inspired or possessed by some deity. People who were mad, or simply frenzied or frantic, were described by the same word, as they were thought to owe their condition to possession by some spirit (our giddy comes from an Old English word with the same sense).

It was this sense of inspiration by a deity that came over into English with the word in the sixteenth century. A hundred years later it began to be applied to people who were thought to be excessively enthusiastic, especially about the way they practised their religion. One of the Cavalier ballads sung at the time of the English Civil War in the 1640s had a line: “So many phanaticks, with hearts disloyal, / Their hearts and minds do fix ’gainst our King royal”, where the phanaticks, in an old spelling, were their Roundhead opponents. Later the word became less specific and took on its modern meaning of someone excessively in favour of something beyond all reasonableness or reason. It’s still used in connection with religion, though the broadening of sense requires a supporting adjective, as in religious fanatic; historically, though, this is unneeded repetition.

It’s also verging on direct repetition to use “enthusiasm” in a definition of fanatic, as the two words are closely related, the Greek root of enthusiasm having almost exactly the same meaning as the Latin one of fanatic. It’s derived from theos (as in theology), through enthousiasmos, “inspired or possessed by a god”. When it first came into English, a century after fanatic, it had virtually the same meaning. Even though by the end of the eighteenth century it had softened to “impassioned emotion”, enthusiasm was still very negative, with enthusiast having connotations of a person who was a visionary or self-deluded. Enthusiasm was a dangerous emotion, something that had to be treated with extreme caution. A negative sense survives. Arthur Balfour wrote in a letter in 1891: “It is unfortunate, considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth” and even now the word suggests someone whose actions are governed by emotion rather than logic.

Today, fan has much of this sense about it of uncritical approval. It is firmly part of our vocabulary, being applied not only to sports, but to any activity that is capable of attracting a following. For example, it was adopted in the thirties as a term for themselves by those science-fiction fans who attended early SF conventions. They now have a great range of compounds that hardly anyone outside the genre has ever heard of, such as fandom for fans taken as a group; an adjective fannish; neofan for a newbie fan; trufan for a committed and long-term one; fanzine for a fan magazine (with the recent coinages of cyberfanzine and videofanzine taking us into the electronic age, along with e-zine). Fanac is short for “fan activities”; and the desperately politically incorrect femmefan is a female SF fan (as in Fallen Angels by Niven, Pournelle and Flynn: “Downstairs in one of the function rooms, he found Dinsby in a circle of femmefans surrounding Gordon”). The plural of fan is jokingly taken sometimes to be fen, by analogy with man/men (but what do you expect of people who took up a typing error in folk song and now have filk songs?

The football fans in particular seem set to be a permanent part of the landscape and are having a wonderful time this month, even though, as Nick Hornby says in Fever Pitch, “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score”. Sad, really.

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 13 Jun 1998; Last updated 27 Dec 1998