Taylor Swift fanilect

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By now I must have listened to Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" a hundred times.  The first fifty times I heard a crucial line in it as "Got only Starbucks lovers" or "Not only Starbucks lovers", and it was driving me crazy because I couldn't make sense of it.  Sometimes I forced myself to believe that she was saying "Got only starcrossed lovers", but that didn't make sense either.  Then, on December 4, 2014, I read Mark Liberman's "All the lonely Starbucks lovers" on Language Log, and I learned — much to my astonishment — that, according to the lyrics, she was supposedly saying — repeatedly in the song — "Got a long list of ex-lovers".  Still today, after listening to the song and watching the video countless more times, plus reading the printed lyrics, I hear her sing "Got / Not only Starbucks lovers", never "Got a long list of ex-lovers".

Thus I am simultaneously assailed by multiple Taylor Swift mondegreens and polyphonic earworms ("trouble, trouble, trouble; shake, shake, shake it off").

Taylor Swift's songs are charming, captivating, magical, mesmerizing.  It's no wonder that people are transfixed by them.   Now we have an article that delves into their enchanting language:

"Quoting Taylor Swift Lyrics Is an Actual Linguistic Thing

Call it a fanilect."

Pia Ceres, WIRED (2/3/23)

Ceres informs us:

“Blank Space, baby,” “red lip classic,” “look what you made me do,” a million allusions to lost scarves—across subreddits and Twitter, Taylor Swift fans communicate in code. Lots of stans do. Fluency in an artist’s work is its own kind of currency in tight-knit devotee communities. Which is why it was odd when Swift-speak found its way onto the US Senate floor.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee grilled the president of Live Nation Entertainment about whether the concert behemoth was a monopoly, following last year’s internet meltdown over Ticketmaster's handling of presales for Swift’s Eras tour. Throughout the hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked in tongue-in-cheek references to Swift’s lyrics. “May I suggest, respectfully, that Ticketmaster look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem. It’s me,'” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, quoting Swift’s recent hit “Anti-Hero.” While the moment went viral, it was met with glee and eyerolls on the internet. “Senators quoting Taylor Swift lyrics during the Ticketmaster hearings,” one self-professed Swiftie tweeted, “is both cringe and GOLD.”

The quote-laden hearing and online response to it reveal a distinct characteristic of Swift’s fandom, and indeed many fandoms: They speak a language all their own. When fans weave her lyrics into conversation, they’re doing it with the context—Swift’s metaphors and double entendres, the situations and relationships the singer may be referencing—intact. It’s authentic. When politicians do it, it’s cringe.

The phenomenon is widespread and extends beyond the realm of Taylor Swift fandom, but is especially intense when centered on her.

Quoting song lyrics constitutes a private way of speaking that binds Swift fans together, says Cynthia Gordon, who studies language and social media at Georgetown University. Gordon has spent years studying “lects,” or the varieties of languages shared by a group of speakers, and sees one in the way Swifties communicate. In families, these are called “familects” and are developed from years of inside jokes, or riffs on that thing someone said on that one trip to Grandma’s. They’re like memes, but memes that are only funny to a very small group and probably sound unusual to listeners outside their households. If families share “familect,” then Swifties might speak a fanilect. “In using language this way, we’re creating connections with people who share the references and who understand what’s taking place,” Gordon says. “If you’re quoting Taylor Swift, that connects us.”

The specific linguistic mechanism at play when fans bat around Swift quotes is called intertextuality—basically, taking quotes and bringing them into new context, like a subreddit or a Senate hearing. “Each new iteration of a quotation or word invokes and reanimates a shared set of meanings and experiences,” says Gordon.

Meanwhile, VHM can't shake off Starbucks lovers!

Selected readings


  1. Ross Presser said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 8:50 am

    > By now I must have listened to Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" a hundred times.

    How are you still conscious?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 9:33 am

    @Ross Presser:

    Spread out over the last ten years.

    I listen to the radio a lot.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 9:41 am

    One time on an expedition around the western part of the Taklamakan Desert, the Chinese driver played Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" scores of times, probably also a hundred, but that was in a period of a week. I liked it the first 10-15 times I heard it, but then it started to drive me insane, and finally I had to tell him to stop. He was not happy.

  4. ALB said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 10:10 am


  5. ALB said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 10:13 am

    BTW, your current profile name links to an expired website :



  6. KeithB said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Like when that DJ locked himself in the studio and played "Ebony and Ivory" over and over and over…

  7. Mark Raabe said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 10:51 am

    Not to take this off track, but that's an interesting (and not necessarily welcome) extension of the meaning of "Senate floor." The floor is where the Senate as a whole conducts its business and does not include committee hearings, as least as I understand it. Bills are "brought to the floor" for consideration by the whole Senate only after they make their way out of committee.

    But back to Swift…

  8. AntC said,

    February 7, 2023 @ 6:58 pm

    Quoting Taylor Swift Lyrics Is an Actual Linguistic Thing

    Good grief! She's not Cole Porter/Irving Berlin/The Gershwins nor even The Beatles/Don McLean/Carole King/James Taylor.

    I thought the whole point of modern over-produced music was to drown out the lyrics because they're inconsequential. As opposed to back in the day when they were too offensive to be played on the BBC, so the over-production was to give plausible deniability.

    I've just played some of Ms Swift's oevre; the most generous assessment I could make is 'instantly forgettable'. I've probably heard them before as musack in some café/bar.

  9. norgie said,

    February 8, 2023 @ 11:14 pm

    @AntC good grief, thanks for the old Fuddy Duddy comment. Different strokes and all that

  10. Steve said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 2:46 am

    What's a possible explanation for hearing "Got only Starbucks lovers"? BTW, here's a link to an agreeable multilanguage mashup of "Blank Space" and "Mental Manadhil" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZsRQNUQ8Vo

  11. Eric TF Bat said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 6:28 am

    Grumpy old AntC's comment is interesting. I was exposed to Ms TayTay the way most people are: by having kids who were briefly huge fans. I noticed early on that her songwriting is unusually good, complex and multi-layered, full of witty lines and clever imagery, and generally only let down by her singing which is merely OK. Covers of her songs, for example by Walk Off The Earth, are frequently excellent. I think she needs another decade or so of life's ups and downs and, provided she doesn't fry her brain, she will grow into one of the best songwriters of her generation. Still not much of a singer though — but neither is Billy Bragg, and he does OK!

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 7:18 am

    AntC (and, it would appear, all other commentators) has the advantage of knowing who Taylor Swift is. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea, and am perfectly happy to remain that way. My only question is "why does she have a surname as her given name ?". In so doing, she is opposite of a former Anglo-Indian schoolmate who had a given name as his surname — "Carlisle David".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 9:56 am


    Thank you so much for acquainting us with that magnificent multilingual mashup by Mental Manadhil!

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 12:19 pm


    That function of WordPress hasn't worked for all LL authors for about 5 years.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 12:23 pm

    Most people agree that Taylor Swift is a great songwriter. As for her singing ability, I think it's quite impressive, ranging from a throaty alto to a sparkling soprano.

  16. AntC said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 5:42 pm

    @Taylor, Philip I … have absolutely no idea

    Make it Easy on Yourself and play some of her stuff from Youtube — that's what I did. Then you'll find What's New Pussycat or that you have in fact heard her before and it's instantly forgettable.

    Fuddy DuddyGrumpy old AntC …

    Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, but I Walk on By.

    Fuddy duddy? If and when Ms Swift produces anything as musically innovative as Bert Bacharach RIP, then I'll start taking notice. Or as musically 'edgy' as the output from Tin Pan Alley a hundred years ago.

  17. JPL said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 5:59 pm

    It was odd reading this post and thread after having listened yesterday evening to some female vocalists. Maybe it would be OK to share with you some of them, if there are music lovers out there.

    The first is a British pop vocalist who I think is absolutely first rate, rich and evocative. The second is an American pop artist who is popular, but not as popular as Taylor Swift; nice song, although it could never be popular. The third is maybe an unfair comparison, but the vocal is sublime, and it's a great song (Isley Brothers cover), although the instrumental backing is a bit disappointing for me. (People may not have heard this one before; it was not in the biopic, which I saw recently.) The fourth and fifth are young artists singing great songs at a high level (so we don't have to be old fuddy-duddies).

    I don't think any of these could be really popular, especially the last two, although I think one has to admit, they're great songs, and not inaccessible. Well, I always have the impulse to celebrate the neglected. Don't cost you nothin to check 'em out!

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX5TJoDrkQ4

    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfVndToCtQo

    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjNXpQCqYtY

    4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-LdgIVXGsg

    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crlTZbpUeiU

  18. JPL said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 6:14 pm

    (I posted a comment, but I don't see it on here. Is it because it included several links? Should I try again?)

  19. RfP said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 6:30 pm

    De gustibus…

  20. AntC said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 7:41 pm

    old … old

    I can only wish to have half the energy of either of these knock-them-in-the-aisles 70-year-olds when I get to their age. Complex lyrics, complex music. Crafted. And every word clear and worth hanging on.

    Not Ms Swift's laconic lookin-at-you lookin-at-me cynicism.

  21. JPL said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 1:27 am


    By an odd coincidence, the three independently chosen examples above of pop singers I listened to yesterday have all done this great Bacharach/David song, "Alfie". I mean, not that many singers have done it, probably because Dionne Warwick owns it, and maybe Streisand, but in my opinion it's B&D's best. Whitney's is from late in her career, when, as noted in the biopic, her voice was ravaged by cigarette smoking; still, she knew what she had to do here and she did it.

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCdDQPPhHzg

    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=536D7dplgl8

    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=774MVa90f_0

  22. Trogluddite said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 9:29 am

    @Taylor, Philip: "Why does she have a surname as her given name ?"
    According to Wikipedia, she is named after songwriter James Taylor. Wikipedia's 'Taylor (given name)' entry lists a few born in the 1940's and 50's, but hints that the name became far more widespread in the 1980's, primarily in the USA (though the predominance of baseball, basketball, and American football players suggests a ludicrous degree of bias!) Incidentally, Swift's father and brother also have surname-derived given names; Scott and Austin respectively.

  23. Rodger C said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 11:04 am

    Since when is Austin derived from a surname? St. Austin and St. Benedight, save this house from wicked wight!

  24. Trogluddite said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 3:57 pm

    @Rodger C
    Indeed, originally from Augustine ("magnificent"). The shorter form 'Austin' comes from Old French, and thence to England via the Normans and the Austin Friars (Augustinians). Supposedly, the name wasn't then naturalised as an English given name until long after the Norman patronymic family name was well established. I should add, however, that a scion of an 'Austin' family is my primary source for this, and my cursory Googling following your comment hasn't turned up anything definitive one way or the other.

  25. DS Zhang said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 1:21 am

    So, would all the Chinese netizens who share the funny reference of the same 梗 become fanilectally connected? Can 梗 (shtick) also be translated into, or become quasi-equivalent to fanilects, by Gordon's definition of "….creating connections with people who share the references and who understand what’s taking place"?

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