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No, the word “stan” has not just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary

But if you don’t know what it means, where have you been?

According to popular reports, “stan”, a word used by fan communities to refer to being a very enthusiastic fan of something, has just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is categorically not true – despite its prevalence online, “stan” has so far never been included in the OED.

If you’ve not encountered the word before, stan essentially works as a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan” – if you’re a stan, you’re a fan, but the word implies an extremity of devotion that the word “fan” (originally an abbreviation of fanatic) has lost over time. It’s used a lot in online fandoms – both as a verb and as a noun: you can both be a Beyoncé stan, and stan hard for Beyoncé.

But while it’s easy to assume “stan” began life as a portmanteau, it seems to have first appeared in the lexicon as a reference to the Eminem (feat. Dido) song “Stan” – which tells the story of a troubled, extreme Slim Shady fan who tries to look like his idol, sends him countless unanswered letters, and eventually kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend by driving them off a bridge. So far, so subtle. Please, remind yourself of Dido’s Oscar-worthy performance as “unnamed girlfriend repeatedly screaming ‘Stanley!’” below.

But Stan is just the lead character’s name here – the use of “stan” as a generic descriptive turn developed when Nas, in his infamous diss track “Ether”, said of Jay Z: “You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan”. The pejorative connotations of the word suit the linguistic choices of many fandoms – which often describe the extent of their enthusiasm in hyperbolic, extreme language, paired with an ironic, self-deprecating tone: people began calling themselves stans in the same way they teasingly accuse their idols of ruining their lives.

Oxford Dictionaries – which represents a number of dictionaries published by Oxford University Press, including the OED – offers a free online dictionary (en.oxforddictionaries.com) which has, since 2015, included a definition of “stan”. It defines the word as a noun meaning “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity”, or a verb meaning “to be an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity”. But this free online dictionary is simply not the same thing as the official Oxford English Dictionary, which is seen as the authoritative text on the language. Contrary to popular reports, this meaning of “stan” hasn’t yet made it into the OED (the word is only defined as “a country with a name ending in -stan; a central Asian country, esp. a republic which was formerly part of the Soviet Union” or, as a “humourous” suffix, “used as the second element in fictitious place names with the sense ‘the notional realm or domain dominated by or centred around ——’”).

But yesterday and this morning, a number of reputable outlets, including the BBC, Time, Pitchfork, and Billboard all reported that stan has “just” or “now” been “officially recognised” by the Oxford English Dictionary – linking to Oxford Dictionaries’ free site. Even Genius, who rightly spotted the strangeness of these stories surfacing now, wrote that the word has long been included in the “Oxford English Dictionary”.

How did this misreporting happen? In February 2016, the official Oxford Dictionaries account tweeted a blog post from the previous July discussing the evolution of the word “stan” after it was added to their free online dictionary. This blog post is cited by most outlets as proof of the supposed new OED addition, apparently not realising that this dictionary and the OED are not one and the same. 

The lyric website Genius recently collaborated with Spotify to create a Behind The Lyrics track on Eminem’s “Stan”. The track mentions the free online definition of “stan”, and Genuis staff screenshotted the info in a tweet which quickly accrued thousands of retweets and likes. That lead to many Twitter users assuming that the information was new – and many reputable news sites simply regurgitated those facts without visiting the OED itself, or contacting the dictionary.

But what this lazy reporting does unwittingly reveal is the enormous gap between the official gatekeepers of language and the people who use it every day. Most of these outlets felt keen to report on the word “stan” making the OED because they know their young and music-literate audiences would already have an awareness of and interest in the word. “Stan” is a widespread enough term to supply many leading publications with pageviews – and yet if you were an outsider consulting the language’s most authoritative dictionary, it would be nowhere to be found.

Many outlets praised Eminem for making it into the OED – but this whole debacle reminds us that dictionaries don’t determine language: they’re simply playing catch-up.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear