Q&A: Where do “fans” come from?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week’s Q&A is fan-tastic…

Q: Hi AWC, how about that Roger Federer – still winning big tournaments like a pro!

A: Well, he is a pro.

Q: Okay sure, but at age 36… Wow. Just gotta say, I’m his number 1 fan.

A: So not his wife, or parents, or his kids. Not the first person to follow him actively in his sport… instead, it’s YOU that are his number 1 fan.

Q: Now you’re just being pedantic.

A: We’re pedants – it’s what we do best.

Q: Okay okay. Well, I’d really like to keep talking about Federer if we can. So, um, can we find a way to incorporate him into today’s lesson?

A: The various uses for the word “roger”?

Q: No no no. Not that. Um. Okay, what about the word “fan”?

A: A lot of players will have wished they had motorised ones rather than human ones in that Melbourne heat last week, right?

Q: We’ll do the jokes; you stick to the explanations. So, “fan” – surely the human sporting version doesn’t come from a “ceiling fan” or similar? Well, wait, I guess we ARE fanning them with our love. Oh wait, is that how surfer Mick Fanning got HIS name?

A: No, no and no. Let’s go back to your last thing that made sense.

Q: The definition of “fan”?

A: That’s right. The original noun is that handheld device that the “three little maids” from school in The Mikado would giggle behind. The mechanical fans came later of course. The word comes from Latin “vannus” – relating to wind powered tool for separating chaff and grain.

Q: Not a lot of autograph books or selfies so far…

A: True. The other meaning – as in a person with a strong interest in someone or something – likely comes from the word “fanatic”. “Fan”, in this context, didn’t really take hold until the late 19th century.

Q: So is the word “fanatic” older?

A: Much older. It had been kicking about English since the 1500s, defining someone with excessive enthusiasm or intense, uncritical devotion. This was from the Latin “fanaticus”.

Q: I’m starting to wonder if Latin just went around sticking “us” on the end of words. But anyway, go on.

A: Right, so by the mid-1600s, the word gained religious overtones, and we’ve ended up with two kinds of fanatics these days – the religious/political zealot type and the sportsfan type. Take your pick.

Q: Okay, so it’s an open and shut case – “fan” evolved from “fanatic”…

A: Fancy an alternative theory?

Q: Sure.

A: The verb “to fancy” also means a similar thing to being a fan of something. And it’s quite possible that “to fancy a sportsperson” in the 1800s led to being a “fan” of said sportsperson. But most dictionaries prefer the “fanatic” etymology.

Q: And was it football fans that first started it all?

A: Not at all. It first appeared in US baseball circles in 1889.

Q: Diamonds.

A: Sorry?

Q: Everyone knows they’re called baseball diamonds. Duh.

A: Um, right. Anyway, baseball writings of the time pointed to its use in British boxing circles much earlier in the 19th century.

Q: Rings. They’re called boxing RINGS. Sheesh.

A: Right. Of course. And well, the rest is history. It’s been adopted by everything from sports, players like Federer, celebrities, TV shows, products, clubs and Facebook pages in the 130-odd years since.

Q: But 130 is not an odd number.

A: Oh dear. Well, anyway – we’ve successfully separated fan fact from fan fiction. It might be time for you to go and rewatch some Federer.

Q: Yes, great idea. I’m going to go and Roger myself immediately…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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