The term fandom as a constructed portmanteau of fanatic, shortened to fan, and the English suffix -dom, was first recorded in use in 1903. The definition of fanatic in particular has a strong effect on how fandom is perceived in modern use. The Oxford English Dictionary first lists fanatic as an adjective, meaning “Of an action or speech: Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon; frantic, furious. Of a person: Frenzied, mad.” Although it does recognize this use as obsolete, the connotations of insanity and religious devotion carry through the definitions that are still in use. As a noun, it is used for “A fanatic person; a visionary; an unreasoning enthusiast.” Defining fanatic seems to requires some sort of reference to the fan as unreasonable, insane, or religiously devoted. The suffix -dom has much broader applications. It has a complex history relating to positions of authority, but is now defined as a “living suffix, freely employed to form nonce-derivatives” both relating to positions and roles of authority or dignity, but also, as it is generally employed in fandom, as a figurative “domain, realm.” Together, the etymological sources of fandom explain its uses very well: it can be defined as the realm of unreasonable fanatics who are enthusiastic for “for some amusement or for some artist.”
In its early use, the term fandom was primarily used in the contexts of baseball fans and fan clubs. One early example, used in a 1908 newspaper, lists baseball stars and titles them as “the famed idols of fandom.” In doing so, it references again that religiosity associated with fans and creates the idea of a community with specific idols. In another early magazine, from May 1910, fandom was used again to refer to the fan community surrounding baseball. In a discussion on which baseball league is better, the author specifies that the question his article answers is specific to “the baseball fandom.” Unlike the use in 1908, fandom here is not used alone, but instead must be specified to the baseball fandom. While the term was used primarily within the communities of sports fans, it also had uses outside of sports. In that same period, another form of entertainment that could be consumed by large swathes of people popped up: movies. Movie and sports fandom formed the earliest media fandoms, and the term would gain more use with the greater dissemination of popular media.
Science fiction fandoms quickly rose to prominence over sports fandoms with early science fiction clubs in the 1930s, which published fan magazines (eventually called fanzines in the 1940s, and later zines). These groups were well articulated communities who directly communicated with each other and shared fan-written texts. Early groups such as the Futurians and the National Science Fiction League met in person and shared those physical works. Fan fiction, which has become a mainstay of modern fandom, was not included in these early zines, but rather reviews and editorials of other magazines, or profiles of fandom members. At this point, science fiction clubs were focused on literary works of science fiction. They used their zines to fill the gaps between published works, as not much content was coming out during the Great Depression. Fans stepped in to fill that void. As Coppa describes, this is the era in which some long standing fandom terms had their genesis: BNF (big name fan), fanboy, con (convention), and beta reader, just to name a few that are still in use. Fandom would soon move from literary science fiction to the visual media science fiction that would quickly take over as sci-fi reached the small screen.
Everything changed in 1967, with Star Trek, and perhaps to a lesser degree The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It is in the Star Trek era that fandom first began to really resemble modern fandom. Fans of the pilot of Star Trek were coming out of science fiction literature fandoms, and they did what they did best: they made a zine. It was these same early fans that saved Star Trek, creating a campaign to save the show that exhibited the early material power of fandom. This was also the period in which fandom transformed and fans started creating transformative works, such as fan fiction and fan art. The fans themselves also differed from the members of earlier fandoms, because for the first time, the majority of fans were highly educated and well-read women. Those female fans created many of the long-standing tropes that would come to define fandom and fan fiction communities. Romantic fanfiction between two men came to be known as slash or slash fic, the earliest examples of which are between Captain Kirk and his second in command, Spock. Fans used the shorthand Spock/Kirk, and the term slash came out of the slash used between any two names (usually both male) to mark the relationship as romantic. Fan fiction and slash in this early media fandom continued to be central to fandoms as they moved into the internet age.
The use of the word fandom exploded with the internet in the 90s, and specifically the advent of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s. The use of fandom in published works just about quadrupled from 1987 to 1997, tripled from 1997 to 2007, and quadrupled again from 2007 to 2017. Suddenly, it was easy to access like-minded people in niche communities or interest groups, no matter where those communities were physically. As more people gained access to fandom and mass media, more people began participating. Fandoms were organizing themselves into fandom-specific websites and forums all across the internet. At this time, too, fandom became much more popular within non-televison media communities as well, including comics, anime, music, and celebrities. This growth is now inextricably linked to social media, from UseNet and LiveJournal through to Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, where fan art and visual creations thrive. Online fandom spaces continue to change; in the recent years, K-pop has become the fastest growing fandom in terms of fan works, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has a massive hold in online fandom spaces. While old-school science-fiction and fantasy still have an important place through the superhero genre and anime, as popular media changes, so does fandom.
Through it all, fans and fandom have carried with them all those early etymological connotations of religiosity. We are so devoted to our love objects, and in some fandoms (such as K-pop), the actual title for the object/person that we are fans of is idol. There is a fanaticism to it, a sort of obsession, and it can be, in medieval terms, mad. It can be terrifying, the hive mind is powerful, and racism is just as present in fan spaces as it is in the real world. At the same time, being in fandom can be beautiful. In 2021, fandom is a collaborative and often queer space in which like-minded people, primarily women and non-binary people, can unashamedly share their joy.
Coppa, Francesca. “A Brief History of Media Fandom.” In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 41-59. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996.
Crane, Sam. “Why the National League Beats the American.” Pearson’s Magazine 23, no. 4, May 1910.
“-dom, suffix.” OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/view/Entry/56646?.
“fanatic, adj. and n.” OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/view/Entry/68008.
“fandom, n.” OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.libproxy.berkeley.edu/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/68041.
Google Ngrams, “fandom,(fanfiction + fan fiction); 1900-2019.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=fandom%2C%28fanfiction+%2B+fan+fiction%29&year_start=1900&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cfandom%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2C%28fanfiction%20%2B%20fan%20fiction%29%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cfandom%3B%2Cc1%3B.t1%3B%2C(fanfiction%20%2B%20fan%20fiction)%3B%2Cc0.
Google Ngrams, “movie fandom,baseball fandom,science fiction fandom; 1900-1990.” Accessed March 12, 2021. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=movie+fandom%2Cbaseball+fandom%2Cscience+fiction+fandom&year_start=1900&year_end=1990&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmovie%20fandom%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cbaseball%20fandom%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cscience%20fiction%20fandom%3B%2Cc0.
Hellekson, Karen. “Fandom and Fan Culture.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, 153–64. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. doi:10.1017/CCO9781107280601.015.
toastystats (destinationtoast). “[Fandom stats] AO3 in 2020.” Archive of Our Own, November 11, 2020. https://archiveofourown.org/works/27315784.