As I sat on the edge of my sofa on Saturday night watching Doctor Who and trying to acclimatise myself to a slightly softened version of Malcolm Tucker as the new identity of everyone’s favourite Time Lord, I wondered whether I could call myself a Whovian. A Whovian, as you may know, is someone who self identifies as a part of the Doctor Who fanbase. It is one of the seemingly endless set of terms that have been created to describe one’s particular fandom affiliation.

Nicknames for groups of fans have been around for a long time, for example the name Whovian was first used in the 1980s when fans created a fan club newsletter called the Whovian Times. For years we have heard football fans identifying themselves as part of the Toon Army or as a Gooner (Newcastle City fans and Arsenal fans, respectively). However, there seems to have been a recent explosion of fan nicknames in a host of areas: music (Beliebers, Directioners, Swifties), TV (Sherlockians, Gleeks), books (Ringers, Tributes, Twihards), films (Trekkies) and even celebrities (Cumberbitches, Pine Nuts). I want to consider some issues in this post: Why do we feel the need to create these nicknames? Why do some fan groups have nicknames whilst others do not? What makes a good fandom nickname and how are these created?

Firstly, why are these nicknames coined? I think there are four core reasons:

  1. To identify an ingroup. With the rise of the internet, people are exposed nowadays to media from across the world. Young people growing up with this access to global content may be rejecting typical labels such as nationality, religion or political affiliation in favour of associating themselves with personal interests. It is notable that the suffixes often used to create these fangroup names appear to come from those used for nationality or local identity (such as –[i]an used in American and Argentinian or –er used in Londoner and Westerner). By choosing one’s own label and ingroup, you are aligning yourself with a particular community that shares similar values. The names of these fan groups can act as a shibboleth. Although it may be easy to discern that a Belieber is a Justin Bieber fan, would you necessarily know that Smilers are Miley Cyrus fans? These names can create exclusivity where only those ‘in the know’ can be part of the group.
  2. To identify a community. Early fangroup names seem to stem from films or TV shows that held conventions. The names Warsies (Star Wars fans) and Trekkies/Trekkers (Star Trek fans) formed before the age of the online forum. The fact that people actually met in person and created a community around these brands is what helped create their monikers. Now that there are online forums and blogs for almost anything one can imagine, it has allowed communities to form in the virtual world. From these communities, fan group names have been coined. It is arguable that to be deserving of the fan group nickname, one must engage with these communities either online or in person. I might be a huge fan of Doctor Who, but having never visited any fan sites or attended any conventions, I probably could not consider myself a Whovian. So strong are the communities for some of these groups that there are dating websites entirely based around one’s particular fan community (for example,
  3. To create layers of fandom. A personal admission: I have three One Direction songs on iTunes and I know some of the band members’ names. You could perhaps say I am a One Direction fan. You would probably not say I am a Directioner. A Directioner is more than just someone who has some One Direction music on their iPod. It is someone who has memorised all the lyrics, knows where Harry Styles was born, has queued up for hours to buy tickets to their shows and so on. Nicknames for fan groups provide the superlative on a scale of commitment. It is possible to imagine someone saying: “She might listen to Justin Bieber, but she’s not a Belieber like me.”
  4. To defy haters. It seems that early fan group nicknames (such as Belieber or Directioner) were a means of unifying fans and standing up against those people who criticised the objects of fans’ affections. Perhaps it is the case that the more divisive the thing in question, the more likely it is to have a fan group nickname.

This brings me on to another question – why do some fan groups have nicknames and some do not? Some brands are enormously popular and yet do not have a fan group nickname. For example, Oprah Winfrey is arguably the most powerful woman in America. She has immense influence, is allegedly worth $2.9 billion and has over 25 million followers on Twitter. However, her many millions of fans do not have a nickname. I think this is due to two of the reasons mentioned above. As nicknames may stem from brands being divisive, there must be a feeling that the brand needs defending. Oprah is not criticised enough for her fans to rally together under one name. Secondly, to create an ingroup, a brand must be in some way exclusive. Oprah is too ubiquitous and popular to really be the source of an ingroup and therefore a fan name. Other huge fanbases that do not have a clear nickname include fans of Game of Thrones (or more generally the book series A Song of Ice and Fire) and fans of Harry Potter (notably some people call this group Pottheads but this started as a derogatory term and does not unite the fanbase). In these cases I suggest the final reason is at play again. With their phenomenal popularity, one cannot affiliate oneself with these brands as an ingroup due to the sheer size of the fanbase. However, one may choose to affiliate with certain characters or groups within the brands. For example, fans may side with the Lannisters or the Starks in the Game of Thrones fandom and Gryffindor or Slytherin in Harry Potter. Indeed, some of these sub-sections do have fan group nicknames. For example, the group of Harry Potter fans who wish that Hermione had chosen Harry instead of Ron call themselves Harmonians!

So, how are these nicknames formed? One way nicknames appear is that the artists select them themselves. This is not a new occurrence, with George Harrison calling the superfans of The Beatles, who gathered outside the Apple Corps building, Apple Scruffs. In 2009 Lady Gaga dubbed her fans her Little Monsters (after her album Fame Monster) and Ke$ha called her fans Animals (after her album Animal). However, often the communities themselves develop the nicknames for themselves. Sometimes they have a selection of names that they ask the celebrity to pick from (for example, Ed Sheeran picked Sheerios from a some fan-suggested possibilities). Sometimes the fan group names are selected and the artist in question does not necessarily approve of the choice (for example, Benedict Cumberbatch would prefer his fans called themselves Cumberbabes or the Cumber Collective, but they have dubbed themselves his Cumberbitches). When fans do select nicknames, it may be that a number abound for a while until one wins out (as with Ringers from a number of other possibilities for Lord of the Rings fans, such as LOTRians). In the case of fans of the Hunger Games series, they rather democratically had an online vote to choose their fan name.

So then, how does one create a good fan group nickname? The easiest way is to take the name of the object of your affection and add a suffix. The most popular appear to be –ers, –ies and –ians. Notably fanbases seem to steer away from the suffix –phile (the suffix that means ‘to have a fondness for’) perhaps due to unfavourable connotations from use of this suffix in unsavoury words such as paedophile and necrophile. A second option is to create amusing portmanteaus, such as Gleeks (from Glee + geek), Twihards (from Twilight + try-hard), Bey Hive (from Beyonce + Bee Hive), Fanilow (from fan + Barry Manilow) and, finally, for men who like a retro kids TV show, Brony (from brother + My Little Pony). As mentioned earlier, the fan group nickname can act as a shibboleth and therefore some groups may choose something that is slightly more obscure so that only ‘real fans’ will understand the meaning. For example, the Hunger Games’ fans chose Tributes as their nickname (a term used in the books to describe a certain heroic group to which most of the main characters belong). Similarly, Miley Cyrus fans are called Smilers, originating from the fact that Miley was nicknamed smiley when she was child. Bruce Springsteen fans call themselves Bruce Tramps due to one of his song titles and Katy Perry fans named themselves KatyCats due to their idol’s love of cats.

Due to inherent narcissism I could not help but consider what my fans would call themselves if I ever gained celebrity. I think that Rowena would only have to drop its first syllable to become a passable fan group name. Therefore, I can only hope that I maintain obscurity to save any group from ever having to declare themselves Weeners.