Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned AbrasiveS

Technology, in case you hadn't noticed, is a topic that inspires passion.

When people like stuff, they tend to really like it. And many tech enthusiasts have trouble dealing with people whose tastes differ from theirs. Praise a product or company online, and you run the risk of being accused of being a sycophant who suffers from obsessive interest and inappropriate emotional attachment.

Except nobody will use those words. What they'll call you is a fanboy.

The odds of the word coming up are highest if the conversation involves Apple and its products, but it's a handy, all-purpose insult. Consider these snippets of recent conversation on the Web:

"You Apple fanboys keep drinking the Kool-Aid…"

"Wow, listen to all the Android fanboys!"

"I am not some loser fanboy…"

"Sucks to be a Windoze fanboi…"

"Surely with all the fanboy talk of how important the iDiotPhone is, it should be on the list…"

"Big ego, small brain. Typical fanboy!"

"You're nothing but an Adobe fanboi…"

"Stop being a lousy fanboy who knows nothing but what Stevie tells you."

"You Apple haters are worse than any Apple fanboy I've ever met, and just as stupid."

These examples all come from messages posted at PCWorld.com's forums over the past few weeks, but they could have originated almost anywhere that technology gets discussed. "Fanboy" is everywhere–the New York Times uses it (albeit politely), and so does the Christian Science Monitor. And while it's often meant to mock, it's also worn as a badge of honor: There's a Fanboy.com, a Macfanboy.com, a Sonyfanboy.com, a Nintendofanboy.com, and a Googlefanboy.com. We even have a president who has both been called a fanboy and accused of inspiring fanboyism.

For a simple compound of two one-syllable English words, "fanboy" has surprisingly rich, colorful connotations. I asked my Twitter pals for their definitions and got some cogent answers:

@scadweed: fanboy- someone who is absolutely, fanatically subjective to a brand and emphatically disregards any opposing views.

@baznet: Fanboys are two steps above aficionado, and one step below crazed jagweed.

@stanitarium: A product evangelist exaggerating benefits of said product at the cost of admitting benefits of a competitor.

@darth: definition of fanboy: that guy who disagrees with me

@danfrakes: A term a tech writer uses to preemptively discredit anyone who disagrees.

All slightly different–and all correct.

Origin of the Species

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

For decades, most references to "fan boys" (like this LIFE photo) involved kids compliantly attending to rich and powerful types. No official etymological connection to "fanboy," but an interesting parallel nonetheless.

I'm fascinated by "fanboy"–but it's not a word I use much. Somewhere along the line, I developed a live-and-let-live attitude towards technology enthusiasm. Go ahead and like whatever you like–it's just fine with me.

I wasn't always so blasé, though. Thirty years or so ago, I was a high-school student and user of Radio Shack's TRS-80 computers who found Apple II owners snobby, cliquish, and possibly slightly dimwitted. I would have accused them of being fanboys in a millisecond. if the phrase "Apple fanboy" had been coined yet. But it hadn't.

Oddly enough, I was one of a smallish group of people who had already been exposed to the word "fanboy." Long before the word entered the tech lexicon, comic-book collectors like me were flinging it around. People with a normal interest in comics–say, one similar to your own–were fans. Those who went overboard were fanboys.

That much I knew before I began research for this article. I didn't know, however, just how "fanboy" entered the language in the first place. It's an interesting story, but you won't find it in the dictionary. The word is there–in fact, when Merriam-Webster added it in 2008, numerous celebratory news stories marked the fact.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

But everybody was so tickled that they failed to notice that Merriam-Webster's definition stunk. A fanboy, that dictionary says, is "a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee (as of comics or movies)." As anyone who's either been called a fanboy or called someone else one knows, the boy part isn't a reference to youth. More often, it's a taunt, suggesting that the person in question is goofy and childish. Fanboys come in all ages, and fanboyism isn't the exclusive preserve of males.

Merriam-Webster's entry says that "fanboy" dates to 1919–the same year specified by the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes a newspaper's reference to baseball "fan boys." The second reference to fanboys identified by the OED occurred in 1985.

Sorry, professional etymologists, you blew it. The 1919 reference has little to do with the current, less-than-complimentary word, since it did, in fact, simply mean "youthful male fan." And fanboys didn't inexplicably go into hibernation for sixty-six years.

To understand the origins of "fanboy," you don't need to go back to 1919…but you do need to start earlier than 1985. Try 1973–when a handful of copies of a fanzine were distributed at a Chicago comics convention. The zine was credited to two fans who took Marvel Comics, the work of Frank Frazetta, and other matters a wee bit too seriously, Alfred Judson and Bill Beasley. And its name was Fanboy.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

Photo caption: On the cover to Fanboy (1973), Alfred Judson" pays, um, tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Courtesy of Bhob Stewart.

Judson and Beasley were quite literally the prototypical fanboys. They also happened to be fictional characters, the creations of Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray. Lynch was the one who gave the publication its name.

Even if Lynch hadn't had anything to do with identifying and naming fanboys, his significance as a shaper of American culture is sizable: he's been a prominent underground cartoonist and publisher, one of the uncredited subversive masterminds responsible for Topps' Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids, and (most recently) a children's book author.

Lynch got "fanboy" from an earlier put-down. "Funboy" was a relic of his Florida youth which popped up often in Bill Killeen's Charlatan, a 1960s humor magazine with early work by Lynch and other soon-to-be leading lights of underground comics: Fan+funboy=fanboy. Lynch coined the word and drew the cover in 1972, although the fanzine wasn't photocopied and distributed until 1973.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

In the tech world, fanboy is a word that's often meant to sting. Lynch says it wasn't that way originally: "It was meant to be disparaging only in the way that Ray Nelson's propeller beanie as the official hat of fandom was meant to be disparaging," he explains. "Disparaging….but in a loving way."

"Fanboy" sprung from comics culture, but Lynch intended it to apply to a mindset rather than a specific hobby from the start. In fact, the magazine's cover poked fun at disciples of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs–a class of overserious fan distinct from comics collectors. "In the early days we used it not exclusively with comics….We also called sci-fi folks fanboys," Lynch remembers. " What it had to do with was that it was applied to people who were caught up in fantasy (as in superhero comics) rather than in reality (as in satire comics)."

The first printing of Fanboy just barely got distributed: Lynch says the press run was eleven copies. Two revised printings later in the 1970s also had minuscule circulations. Which is why Fanboy, in any of its editions, is a rare and prized collectible. (I have a good excuse for knowing nothing about Fanboy or Jay Lynch at the time: I was eight years old. But boy, was I ever already a fan of his Wacky Packages.)

In 2009, Lynch was moved to tell the tale of Fanboy and "fanboy" in a limited-edition trading card; here are its front and back (copyright (c) 2009 Jay Lynch).

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned AbrasiveS

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

Fanboy the magazine may have had a readership in the low dozens, but Lynch says that "from the time it was published it became part of the language of most of the cartoonists I knew. " One of the people who latched onto the term was Lynch's friend Robert Crumb–the most legendary underground cartoonist of them all.

After visiting Lynch in Chicago in 1976, Crumb traveled to New York and signed a contract to do a strip starring his character Mr. Natural for The Village Voice, the nation's best-known alternative weekly. A few panels into the first Voice sequence, the bearded guru called an obsequious admirer a fanboy. As comics historian Bhob Stewart has said, the term "spread from there into various tributaries of the mainstream."

Two uses I know I saw came in 1982, by which time I was a comic-book store habitué and quietly contemptuous of Apple II devotees. Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, drew a cover for Jay Kennedy's Official Underground and Newave Comix Guide: It showed Zippy peering in on a group of scarily obsessed comics collectors wearing "Fan Boys of America" shirts. In the same year, cartoonist/fans Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala produced Fandom Confidential, a satirical collection of fumetti (comic strips using photos instead of illustrations) starring themselves. In one panel, superstar X-Men artist John Byrne–sort of the Steve Jobs of early 1980s comic books–calls the fawning pair "fanboys in bondage" (both an early fanboy reference and a Monty Python allusion).

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned AbrasiveS

In these and other comics-related usages, "fanboy" remained gently satirical, not surly and accusatory. "‘Fanboy' wasn't a mocking term applied to comic fans by non-comic fans, it was a distinction between one type of fan and another," remembers Engel. "Actual ‘fanboys' then sort of adopted the term in that self-mocking ‘I'll make fun of myself before you make fun of me' way. Fandom Confidential was certainly me making fun of fandom, but at the same time, being an actual fan of the type I was making fun of."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I hung out in the animation and comics forum of pioneering online community BIX, an offshoot of BYTE magazine. I have thousands of BIX posts salted away on my hard drive, so I can confirm that we used the word "fanboy" often–but usually in a genteel fashion. (In one 1991 post, I brought it up–using it in quotes, as if I wasn't quite sure it was a real word–and wondered who'd invented it.)

By then, I owned an Amiga computer, and was prone to prickliness when users of Atari's ST line fatheadedly contended that their machines were superior to mine. But it still didn't occur to me to call them fanboys.

Fanboyism, Meet Tech

Geeks have been pop-culture fans–maybe even fanboys–for as long as there have been computers. Literally: Konrad Zuse, who has as good a claim on having invented the computer as anyone, was a member of a King Kong fan club in 1930s Berlin. So you might assume that the word "fanboy" would have quickly become part of the tech lexicon.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

It didn't. As I researched this article, I scoured the Net for evidence that any irate person called any aficionado of any computing platform a fanboy prior to the 1990s. So far, I've failed. Search the Classic Computer Magazine Archive, home to thousands of articles from 1980s tech magazines, and you get zero results for "fanboy." Google Groups' archive of the popular 1980s USENET newsgroup net.micro also comes up empty.

Judging from Google Groups, "fanboy" didn't start to crop up as a tech-related put-down until the mid-1990s. (Here's a pioneering 1996 reference to "Bill Gates fanboys," in an exemplary USENET flame that also compares Microsoft's co-founder to Stalin and Mao.) Even then, though, it wasn't the pervasive, reflexive jibe it would become. As my friend Steven Gray, senior copy editor at PCWorld, pointed out to me, 1996′s New Hacker Dictionary Third Edition discusses the ties between fandom and hackerdom and defines several fan-related terms–but doesn't mention "fanboy."

"Fanboy" had been around for close to a quarter century by that point, but it remained a comics/sci-fi inside joke. It was, however, in the process of infiltrating the mass media. The 1995 Warner Bros. TV cartoon Freakazoid!, for instance, featured Fanboy, Freakazoid's self-appointed sidekick–and a walking, talking definition of "fanboy."

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

In 1999, Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés created a six-issue miniseries for DC about a Fanboy named Finster–and while Evanier says it sold a whole lot better overseas than it did in the U.S., it reached a vastly larger audience than Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray's Fanboy.

Since then, Fanboys have continued to multiply like, well, Tribbles. Two film comedies have been titled Fanboys: A 2003 New Zealand short and a 2009 U.S. feature. Both involve Star Wars maniacs attempting to steal pre-release prints of 1999′s Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Barry Lyga's young-people's novel The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl was published in 2007; Nickelodeon currently airs a CGI series called Fanboy and Chum Chum.

Such references both reflected growing interest in the concept of fanboyism and introduced more people to it. Here's visible proof of its rise to prominence–a Google Insights graph showing the volume of searches for the word "fanboy" from 2004 (when it amounted to a trickle) to the end of 2009 (when it reached new heights).

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned AbrasiveS

As "fanboy" has become a household term–at least among fans–its use in tech-related debate has exploded over the past half-decade or so. You're most at risk of being dubbed a fanboy if you're say anything nice about Apple; for all of the company's success, there are still scads of people who instinctively dismiss its customers as irrational cultists. Chatter about gaming consoles is also rife with references, and no platform is immune–apparently, advocates of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii are all nothing more than fanboys.

Judging from my Google searches, though, a surprisingly wide array of major brands spawn a meaningful number of fanboy references, good or bad.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned AbrasiveS

My takeaway here? "Fanboy" is a compliment–even when it's slung as invective. It's not evidence that your customers are delusional worshipers of crud. Most often, it's a sign that you've managed to make products that are good enough to make a critical mass of folks really happy–so much so that it drives unbelievers bonkers.

Fanboy! How an Innocuous Word Turned Abrasive

The time to worry, then, is when nobody thinks your users are fanboys. Heads up, RadioShack: the fact that the phrase "RadioShack fanboy" is virtually unknown is not a good sign.

Another conclusion: After having read a few hundred instances of "fanboy" references during research for this article, it's clear to me that the word has lost whatever potency it might once have had as an insult. It's too much of a cliché, too inappropriately dismissive, too likely to be tossed in as an ad hominem attack by someone who shows signs of extreme fanboyism himself.

"I hate the term ‘fanboy' now," laments early adopter Jim Engel. "Not because I feel made fun of, but because it's used most by the worst examples of fanboys."

On the other hand, the sillier, more satirical use of the word, as established in Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray's 1973 fanzine, remains appealing. Long may it wave–and may dictionaries get the story of "fanboy" straight.

All of which left me wondering: Is the guy who coined the word "fanboy" a tech fanboy of any sort?

"Of course I am a Mac person," Lynch told me. "But over the years Mac gets more and more like Windows. Its main saving grace is that there are no Mac viruses. The minute one shows up, though….I will get me a Dell notebook and not hackintosh it." Spoken like a true non-fanboy.

(Thanks to Jay Lynch, Jim Engel Steven Gray, Bhob Stewart, and Steven Rowe for their help with this article.)

Republished with permission from Technologizer and Harry McCracken.