Q&A: Spoiler alert

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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. Warning! This week's Q&A includes spoilers…

Q: Hi AWC, I finally saw the new Star Wars movie – but it was tricky avoiding spoilers until I did.

A: Definitely.

Q: And that’s my question for today – when did the idea of “spoilers” and “spoiler alerts” first enter the vernacular?

A: That’s a good question. Because of course, the word “spoiler” is not new.

Q: That’s right – just look at all those people crying over spoiled milk.

A: Um, it’s “spilled milk” in that idiom.

Q: Oh, okay. Well what about “too many cooks spoil the broth”?

A: Yes, that’s a good one.

Q: I always did think their third band member was unnecessary.

A: Huh?

Q: Oh, sorry, I was getting confused with ‘80s boy-band Bros. Anyway, back to “spoilers”?

A: Good idea. So the word itself has existed since the 1530s. Back then a spoiler was someone who robbed or plundered and not the fact that Luke’s father was Darth Vader.

Q: Hey, spoilers! Anyway, that reminds me. How did Darth Vader know what Luke was getting for Christmas?

A: How?

Q: “Luke, I have felt your presents…”

A: Oh dear.

Q: But yes, you were saying?

A: For a long time, a “spoiler” was simply someone who took the spoils. Then in the 20th century a bunch of new meanings were added. First was the idea of a spoiler on a wing of a plane (to assist with aerodynamics) in around 1928 – later applied to speedboats and cars in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, around 1950 a “spoiler” was used in a political or sporting context – as a person or team that stopped someone else from being victorious.

Q: And what about the “he was dead all along” type of spoilers?

A: According to the Etymology Dictionary, this was first noted back in 1982 as “information about the plot of a movie, etc., which might ‘spoil' it for one who has not seen it”. So a spoiler isn’t a person, it’s the information itself.

Q: 1982 huh. Wow, maybe it DID originate with the Star Wars films. Or perhaps people were spoiling E.T. by giving away that the kid flies his bike at the end.

A: That was on the poster, so maybe not that.

Q: Speaking of spoilers and kids flying bikes, have you seen the latest Stranger Things season?

A: Lalalalalalaaaaa no and don’t give us spoilers.

Q: Okay, sorry.

A: The word “spoilers” in this context rose to fame thanks in part to early internet newsgroups – kind of the social media precursor popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

Q: Why are things that come before called “precursors”? Is it to do with the computer cursor?

A: Nope. In Latin, “cursor” means “runner”, so this is a forerunner. If you want to take “precursor” literally, the computer cursor was linked to the invention of the mouse – by Xerox engineer Doug Engelbart. He prototyped it in the ’60s and ’70s, but it didn’t debut commercially until 1981. So you might say that “precursor” is anything before 1981!

Q: Thanks so much for overdoing that answer.

A: You’re welcome. So yeah, even though “spoilers” were around for a while before the internet kicked off properly in the late ’90s – it wasn’t until then, along with the rise of social media, that they became a big part of the modern vocabulary.

Q: True.

A: And we’d even argue that it’s only been in the past decade that “spoilers” and “spoiler alerts” have finally been accepted as bona fide dictionary definitions – even rising to be the first entry ahead of the other meanings in many cases.

Q: What does ‘bona fide’ mean again?

A: It’s Latin for “in good faith” – meaning “real or genuine” in today’s dictionaries.

Q: Lalalalalalalaaaaa DO NOT tell me what’s in the rest of the dictionary. I haven’t read it and don’t want any spoilers…

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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