Kleefeld's Fanthropology #13: A Fandom Dictionotomy

Kleefeld's Fanthropology: A Fandom Dictionotomy

I first started studying fandom with particular interest about ten or twelve years ago. It was only after a few years of research that I decided to write a book about the subject, not having found anything else that came closer to what I was originally looking for. Almost everything that had been written at the point were academic texts, which had very useful information and insights, but didn't come off as very approachable.

So I got it in my head to write the book that I wanted to read.

In planning for the book, I naturally prepared an outline of material that I felt ought to be covered. Most of it centered around the social aspects of being a fan, and I wanted to refer to psychological theories and ideas but without getting into them too deeply. Something that an intelligent person would appreciate and enjoy, even if they hadn't actually studied much of the social sciences. But even in taking this non-academic approach, I felt that I needed to provide a lot of background and definitions since this wasn't widely known material for most audiences.

I devoted one chapter of the book to a brief history of comic fandom. There's a LOT there to try to cover if you really want to do it in depth, and that could get tricky very quickly. You've got different regions doing different things, often repeating the same functions and coming to the same ideas years or even decades apart. How do you coalesce that into a single, cohesive narrative? Well, by limiting my history to a single chapter, I was able to gloss over a great deal. It wasn't intended to be a comprehensive history, just enough to provide a broad background.

The other problem I faced was with definitions. I couldn't very well talk about a "BNF" without explaining what that was. Terms that might seem obvious to you -- cosplay, fanzine, slash fiction, etc. -- might not have gotten into the vernacular of all the subsets of fandom. I debated trying to provide definitions in the context of their initial usage in the book versus simply including a glossary at the end.

The benefit of a glossary would've been that I would not have had to slow down the flow of the book to make sure readers knew the terms I was using. If a reader was familiar with cosplay, for example, they could just keep on reading and not worry about stopping for a definition they already know. A glossary makes sense, then, right? Wrong.


Are you familiar with the acronym: GAFIA? It's not in circulation as much as it used to be, but it stands for "Getting Away From It All." It meant that a person would dive whole-heartedly into their fan activities to get away from the boring and mundane world of non-fans. Somehow -- and I have never been able to pinpoint how/when/where this happened -- it completely reversed its meaning and came to represent a desire to step back from fandom itself! A "vacation from fandom back in the world of normalcy, where nobody reads that crazy Buck Rogers stuff" according to the 1959 Fancyclopedia.

While something of an extreme example, you can see that definitions can be a bit fuzzy in fandom. While that fuzziness occurs in all languages, the relatively limited vocabulary set here seemed particularly rife with rough approximations of definitions.

But the fact that I found a Fancyclopedia to exist (in three editions, no less!) pointed to just how deep a rabbit hole that could be. Not only did they contain hundreds of words and phrases I had never encountered before, but many of the words had different definitions than how I was familiar with them. But not because they had changed meaning, but because they were defined independently in science fiction and comic book fandoms. I happened across an otaku encyclopedia around this same time to exacerbate the potential confusion in terminologies.

Not that that issue can't be addressed and overcome in making a glossary or encyclopedia of sorts, but it went a lot beyond what I had intended for my own undertaking.

But then there's one more issue that I hint at in the very title of this column. "Dictionotomy" is an unusual term used, to my knowledge, in exactly one place and context: a specific Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Is that worth defining? You could use it around a fellow MSTie and they'd get it and, I suspect, even non-MSTies would understand it if you used it context. (I'm trusting that you readers who don't know the specific reference are smart enough to figure out the basic idea from my context.) Does that warrant an entry for a general fandom glossary? Or even a smaller science fiction one? Quite frankly, I don't have an answer for that.


Language is a whole field of study unto itself. Especially within fandoms, where you've got people developing whole languages out of a few made-up Klingon phrases and, more daunting, entire language sets developed by the original author himself in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien. And while I have the utmost respect for those who are interested in and study those topics at length, I find myself intrigued by  and drawn to the more anthropological aspects of fandom.

While a handy dictionary or glossary would be nice when you first step foot in any given fandom, that's not likely to happen any more than you get an actual guidebook or list of formal rules. Fandoms are an inherently ephemeral collective of individuals and the rules, ideals and even the language is subject to change on a whim. Part of the fun of first joining a fandom is figuring all the specifics of that particular one out for yourself.

But until next week, I'm going to try to gafiate in order to recharge. I'll let you figure out that definition for yourselves.