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.
you know you made a classic song when the oxford dictionary hops on the wave pic.twitter.com/75l7bfL19D
— Genius (@Genius) May 31, 2017
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.