The "Team X" meme

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Fans of Conan O'Brien, who announced he wouldn't accept NBC's plan to move "The Tonight Show" to midnight, have flooded Twitter with the #TeamConan hashtag. In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I trace the evolution of the "Team X" meme (what Arnold Zwicky would call a snowclonelet composite) — from Team Xerox to Team Aniston to Team Edward. An excerpt:

"Team X" didn't cross over into pop-cultural usage until the summer of 2005, when Brad Pitt began appearing in public with Angelina Jolie, soon after his divorce from Jennifer Aniston. Ah, the mid-aughts, when the "Brangelina" portmanteau was inescapable. This celebrity coupling generated huge amounts of fodder for the tabloids and the budding blogosphere. On June 14, 2005, the New York Daily News reported that T-shirts reading "Team Aniston" or "Team Jolie" were all the rage in Los Angeles. There was even a three-month waiting list for the shirts (with Team Aniston "overwhelmingly" outselling Team Jolie, according to manufacturer White Trash Charms).

Read the rest here. (And compare the similar snowclonelet "X Nation," discussed a few years ago on the American Dialect Society mailing list here and here.)

[Update: Please read the whole Word Routes column before commenting! My argument about the pop-cultural usage is preceded by examples from the sporting world, going back to "Team USA," "Team Canada," and the like from 1976. Starting in '05, that type of formation began to be applied by people with a rooting interest in a celebrity or fictional character.]


  1. Tim Walters said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    I'd like to see one of these for "X Nation" (Lolita Nation, Daydream Nation, Rhythm Nation, etc.).

  2. Ian Tindale said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    I've never understood why everyone gets it backwards. Surely it makes more sense and grates a little less to hear "blah team" rather than "team blah"?

    [(myl) This probably began because modifiers follow their heads in French, Italian and Spanish. (Nouns are not generally used as modifiers in those languages; but at least in French, proper names typically follow the noun they modify, as in la place Carnot or le café Ricou.) The thin edge of the modifier-order wedge in English was probably the naming of cafés and other establishments that aspire to a continental vibe. One early example was the Café Carlyle, which has been in operation under that name at least since the 1950s. (There's also the much older NOUN+NAME pattern for things like Mount Sinai and Loch Lomond — see comment below.) ]

  3. Sili said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    I've come across Team Jakob and Team Edward, but I had no idea it was part of a wider 'trend'. The things I learn from LL.

  4. Karen said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    Maybe I'm just hopelessly geeky, but didn't this start with anime? I recall (unwillingly) Team Rocket from Pokemon…

  5. Chargone said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 7:12 am

    Seriuosly? 2005?

    I was sure I'd heard it before then.

    Then again, it tended to be 'team [company]' or 'team [project]'

    [(myl) If you follow the link given in the post, you'll learn that "The general form of 'Team X' dates back to the 1970s at least, often used to refer to national teams in the Olympics or other international competitions. […] Auto racing teams also frequently went by such names as Team Lotus or Team Ferrari. By the 1980s, 'Team X' could apply not just to sporting groups but to companies trying to foster a team-like atmosphere."]

    (i would almost put Money on 'Team Hutchinson-Ford' being in advertisements in New Zealand before that date, for example. Almost.)

    [(myl) Here's some free advice for success in the internet age: learn which links to follow and read before commenting. It helps avoid redundancy, and keeps you from seeming clueless. A pattern of the form "Read the rest here" is generally a pretty good clue.]

    on a different note, am i the only one who hates the fact that almost every blog, the comment box uses a font where small L and capital i are identical?

    i despise that effect.

    'x team' would be something like 'the red team' or 'the home team', x would be expected to be an adjective, and a noun there sounds really odd. 'team x', on the other hand, expects a noun for x. and 'x's team' implies a significant degree of ownership or control, unless x is a pronoun.

    at least, i Think that's how it works.

  6. Ian Tindale said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    Whenever I see students to form groups, there's always one group that thinks they're the first to coin "The Dream Team" – more usually, several at the same time. It wouldn't work as "Team Dream" – unless they're going for the soporific effect.

  7. Karen said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    But the Dream Team is a team which IS a dream, not one representing Morpheus…

  8. Jorge said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    Isn't "Team X" the same pattern of "Mr X", "Dr X", "Lord X", "Queen X", etc.? Doesn't it work just as a title, at least in the case of national teams and auto racing teams?

  9. Cameron said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    Is "Team USA" in Olympic sports the template for the popularization of this construct? In that case, the alternatives don't work well: "USA Team" is quite awkward; "the American Team" somewhat longwinded. "Team America" works well, but some headline writer might have been conscious that people from other countries in the Americas sometimes get upset about "America" referring only to the USA. And in any event, headline writers count characters, and "Team USA" has the virtue of brevity.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    I'm with Cameron. "Team USA" was widely used before the other instances cited. I associate it particularly with ice hockey, and I suppose its use might have been encouraged in that context by "Team Canada," Canada being a place where some people do speak French, so the "Cafe Carlyle" example could be relevant.

  11. John said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    Team USA appears in the Times in 1981, according to their website search engine, and that strikes me as the main context for such appellations. If Canada is indeed the source, then it make sense that it's a French influence (Équipe Canada?).

    I think it was appealing to the sports media as a fun new way of saying "USA" since that's the obvious and common way of referring to the country's team, just as we say "New York" or "Dallas" for other sports teams.

    I don't quite understand the criteria for deciding that it hit pop culture in 2005.

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    Folks! Please read the column that I link to. I cite "Team USA" from 1976, in the run-up to the Canada Cup (an international hockey competition). My excerpt about 2005 marks the crossover from such usage to the pop-cultural realm of celebrities and fictional characters. Saying you're on "Team Aniston" or "Team Edward" or "Team Conan" is obviously quite different from saying you're a member of a national hockey team.

  13. Leo Petr said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    "Team [Paul] Martin" was the brand used by all the Liberal candidates in the 2006 Canadian federal election.

  14. Theodore said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    @John: I think the "2005 pop-culture criterion" is use of the phrase metaphorically to show support for something or someone other than an actual sporting or business team.

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    It has always been my impression that the prototype of "Team X" is "Team Canada," which was adopted in the 1970s precisely because it works in both English and French (team (m.) is commonly used in colloquial Canadian French for équipe). I believe that this in turn was based on "Air Canada," the name that Trans Canada Airlines took in 1964 for the same reason.

    True, a postposed noun modifier is not standard in English, but works in some settings, e.g. with "Air" (Air California, later AirCal, was founded in 1967), "Hotel" and probably a few others.

  16. Acilius said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    I've spent the last two minutes trying to figure out how you can get from "Air Canada" to "Team Canada." I think there's an intriguing hypothesis in there somewhere, but I don't understand what it is. Maybe if you found some Francophone Swiss talking about "Suisse Equipe" at a time when Swissair was a potent symbol of Swiss national pride, you'd have evidence that a similar name could spark an inversion of the usual word order.

  17. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    "Swissair" was deliberately chosen on the basis of English because no one name could be simultaneously German-, French- and Italian-sounding.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: "Canada" postpositive is common, as in "Parks Canada", "Environment Canada", etc. I've long attributed "Team Canada" to this, but after reading Ben Zimmer's article, I'm wondering how old "Team Ferrari", etc., is. I found one from 1969.

  19. Aviatrix said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    @Acilius Air Canada isn't a genealogy of the form, just an example of the way government departments and major corporations in my country get around needing two names, one in each official language. Without that, the noun saying what it is has to straddle the proper noun designator, like "Pont Pierre Trudeau Bridge." Canadians can read that sort of thing just fine, but it's nice when you can find words that work in both languages, and easier to print on your stationery when it's "Agriculture Canada" and not "The U.S. Department of Agriculture."

  20. mollymooly said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    I've never heard "Team Ireland" used apart from the Special Olympics, which have a very American culture base, and A1 motor racing, which is a competition generated ex nihilo by media/branding speculators. Googling throws up other hits for Ice hockey and American football.

    In the UK, "Team GB" (not "team UK") is common for the Olympic team since the late nineties, and has also been adopted by some minority-interest sports (e.g. cycling). The main team sports (soccer, rugby, cricket) don't have a united UK/GB team.

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    It's worth noting that's there's one much older precedent in English for the pattern of a noun modified by a following proper name: geographical names like "Mount Washington" and "Lake Superior". I've always assumed, without proof, that these were originally formed on a French model; and also that they go back at least to Middle English.

    For all I know, it might be a pattern native to English, or subject to other influences (e.g. Loch Lomond), but in any event, it's clearly an old pattern. The OED has (for example)

    a1325 (c1250) Gen. & Exod. 2853 To mount synai forð he nam.

  22. tanyasingsdido said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    The "Team X" formulation in the UK I'd say is also used to invoke – sometimes ironically, sometimes sincerely – a team ethos embodying some of the characteristics popularly associated with certain stereotyped aspects of US culture: optimism, enthusiasm, go-gettingness, absence of cynicism. I think for this reason its use in the UK sometimes grates when used in a non-ironic context. Consider, for example, Team Hackney. []

    Every local authority in England is required to have something called a Local Strategic Partnership, which brings together all the public services in the area to plan how to improve things. 'Local Strategic Partnership' being a deeply dull and opaque name, many of them have gone in for re-branding. Thus: One Nottingham, Be Birmingham, and Team Hackney. I tend to find these a bit nauseating. Team GB is just about acceptable because, like Team USA, there isn't another option as snappy, and hey, it's in the sports world. But more cringe-inducing to my ears is "Team Bath", the branding of the Sports Development Department of the University of Bath and the name they seem to use for all their sports teams. []
    Of course, I'm sure it says something unflattering about me that I'm inclined to find boundless enthusiasm and an optimistic team ethic "nauseating".

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    If "Team Ferrari" and the like precede "Team Canada", then I was obviously wrong about the latter being the prototype. But Formula 1 is also historically an Anglo-French enterprise, witness "Grand Prix d'Europe" etc., so maybe here too what was sought was a name that sounded OK in English and French.

    Oddly enough, while in French a noun modifier is normally postpositive, in business names the English order is often used, e.g. France Télécom or Hachette Filipacchi Médias.

    Other examples of postpositive modifiers in English: the names of counties in Ireland and the names of rivers in the UK.

  24. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    FWIW, Wikipedia says Team Ferrari is "liberally translated" from the
    Italian name Scuderia Ferrari (lit. "Ferrari Stable"). So the "Noun +
    Modifier" ordering of Grand Prix/Formula 1 team names could have originally been based on Italian via loan-translation (or at least that could have been one contributor to the formation).

  25. Jeff Prucher said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    In the West Wing episode "Debate Camp" (season four, episode four, first aired Oct. 16, 2002), several characters form "Team Toby" in an attempt to help Toby Ziegler remarry his ex-wife. This seems similar to the later Team Aniston/Team Jolie usage, although not parallel (there was no rival suitor for Toby's ex's affections, for example, and Team Toby was created with the intention of actually doing something rather than merely showing of support).

  26. Mark P said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    For some reason this reminds me of UTC, the international initialism for Coordinated Universal Time, which is similar to Greenwich Mean Time, UT and Zulu. If Wikipedia ( is correct, the abbreviation was chosen so that it would be neither English (CUT) nor French (TCU).

  27. Maneki Nekko said,

    January 15, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    It seems to me that this usage really took off in the 90s. Mark Leyner's 1992 novel Et Tu, Babe refers repeatedly to "Team Leyner," and there was an early 90s punk band called Team Dresch after its founder, Donna Dresch. I'm sure there are other examples from that time, though I can't recall any more right now.

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