Fanboys: the techie put-down and the bogus acro-mnemonic

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In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at Harry McCracken's excellent historical analysis of the word fanboy, from something of an in-joke among underground cartoonists in the '70s to an all-purpose techie put-down in the '00s. I throw into the mix the acronymic mnemonic FANBOYS, standing for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, a list that is supposed to constitute a class of "coordinating conjunctions" that pattern alike. Geoff Pullum has already noted the bogosity of this list here, and my column relies on further dismantling of the FANBOYS myth by Brett Reynolds of English, Jack and Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic. My final question:

What I'm wondering is, could there have been any cross-pollination between the grammatical mnemonic and the fanboys of comics, science fiction, and the like? If teachers of English composition were keeping FANBOY(S) alive as an acronym in the '50s and '60s, perhaps that had an indirect effect on those underground cartoonists who started using it in the '70s. That's assuming they were paying attention during their language-arts classes and not just reading comic books!

Read the whole column here.


  1. Mark F. said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    This is an example of the sea creature problem. The FANBOYS words do have something of significance in common — a lot of times people should put a comma in front of them but don't. So they're in a useful category, but they don't share a taxonomic grouping. The trick is to find a decent name for the group, and it's tempting to borrow the technical term for the best exemplar of the group.

    Of course, it's even more tempting if you think they all are in the same taxonomic group, which I'm sure is the most common case. The thing is, I'm not sure how much a writing student would be helped by a proper analysis of those words on the way to being reminded that (under certain circumstances) you need a comma before them.

  2. Henning Makholm said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    A class of words that "pattern alike"? I wonder how the originator of that list thought "nor" was alike any of the other words — it seems to be clearly distinguished by forcing the subsequent clause to be VSO. Is it there only to make the acronym work? FATBOY (for, and, though, but, or, yet) would work at least as well.

  3. Brad said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    Completely unrelated to the post above, but I just came across this wonderful headline on Slashdot, and had to share it here:

    "Marine Mammals Used To Fight Terrorism"

    My first thought, of course, was "What made them stop?"

  4. anyone but Mel Nicholson said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 2:39 am

    A simpler explanation is that the acronym FANBOYS was coined by one of the attendees of the upcoming TIMEGATE convention this May 28th-30th, 2010 after an unfortunate malfunction in the grand unveiling of their new time machine. Obviously an actual fanboy was transported back in time and had to support himself as an English teacher once he realized that he had no idea how 21st century technology worked and could not support himself as an inventor. He used the familiar (to him) term as acronym. Therefore we should simply list the 1918-ish acronym as having been derived from the modern term, which in turn came from FANBOY magazine.

  5. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    I'm pretty sure I was introduced to the derogatory use of the term "fanboy" by Harlan Ellison's classic rant "Xenogenesis". I don't remember what year he wrote that. But it was post-Star Wars, so late Seventies at the earliest.

  6. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    …"Xenogenesis" was 1982, it appears.

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