Q&A: Spoiler alert

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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